All the world’s a stage for Iranian director Asghar Farhadi at Cannes

The Oscar winner's latest film is a nod to his roots in theatre and a hit at the French festival.

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman is a hit in Cannes. Loic Venance / AFP
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A Salesman is a fantastic adaptation of playwright Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, made by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi.

Tipped as one of the leading contenders for this year’s Palm d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the film revolves around a teacher and his wife, who is attacked at their home in Tehran.

Actors Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini, both regulars in Farhadi's films, deliver superb performances as a couple who must decide how to respond to the attack. The screenplay, also by Farhadi, features a "play within a play", as Death of a Salesman is being performed in a theatre, and its scenes parallel and augment the film's narrative.

A Salesman received a fantastic reception at the festival, and Farhadi was hoping to add the Palme d'Or to the Oscar he won in 2012 for A Separation. We talked we him ahead of the awards ceremony, which was held last night after Arts&Life went to press.

After you made The Past, in France, how was it to go back to Iran and make a film in your mother tongue?

This film was not supposed to have been made. I started on another project, which was due to be shot in Spain with a Spanish co-producer, Pedro Almodóvar, and we had cast Spanish and American actors. Everything was moving forward nicely, until I sensed that I was nostalgic for my own country. I wanted to go back home before working on the Spanish project.

Was it easier or more difficult to work in Iran than France?

After A Separation, I found it much easier to work in Iran, because I worked with very enthusiastic people who were very involved in the work and that facilitated a number of things. It made it possible to iron out some of the difficulties found by other filmmakers in Iran.

The Salesman is a tale of love, revenge, forgiveness and the theatre. The stage is prominent in the film and it's also very present in your life.

Before I worked on film, I studied the theatre and I expected that I would spend my whole career in theatre. Gradually I started writing for the cinema. However, I feel grateful towards the theatre. I love working with spectators, and I love this experience with the theatre and I like theatre culture.

Why did you want to pay homage to Arthur Miller?

I pay lots of homages. I wanted to pay tribute to a leading Iranian writer, Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi, who is buried in Paris – he is an Iranian Arthur Miller. He is of a similar stature and his work is similar to that of Arthur Miller.

The theatre plays an important role in the film, with the original Arthur Miller play being performed in the background?

In fact there are two parallel tales in the film. You have Death of a Salesman, which is being performed in the theatre, and then you have the death of another salesman, after a very complicated plot has unfolded. The stories in the film and the story in the theatre run in parallel – the salesman, you discover at the end of the film, is very close to the character of Willy [Loman, the main character in Miller's play], the wife is close to Linda [Loman, Willy's wife]. So there are stories within stories. What is happening in the play, in the theatre, seems to be very deeply linked to what is happening to the characters you follow in film.

Do you see a parallel between Tehran and Miller’s New York?

If you read the beginning of Death of a Salesman, you can see the description of New York by Arthur Miller and you can see this change in the city – he loses all the benchmarks in the city and describes the modern life that is beginning to take shape and the impact on individuals and a lot of the groups who fail to adapt to the changes taking place so quickly. What is happening in Iran is very similar – Tehran is developing in a similar way to New York many years ago. But this may lead to disaster, because such renovation or renewal cannot be achieved if you just sweep away the traditions.

These traditional values seem very much linked to honour.

We have this idea of being a bit prudish and the body and family is something that is private. The little boy does not want women from his immediate family to take his clothes off. You notice in the classroom there are only boys, it’s not mixed – this is something you learn in Iran when you are a child, you have this dichotomy between men and women. Failure to respect this privacy – I’m not commenting on it, I’m just saying that this exists. In addition to this privacy, there is this problem of collective judgment – the way others view you, which is very important.