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THE SALESMAN (FORUSHANDE)

Producer: Asghar Farhadi and Alexandre Mallet-Guy
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Writer: Asghar Farhadi
Stars: Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Baba Karimi, Farid Sajjadihosseini, Mina Sadaati, Maral Bani Adam, Mehdi Kooshki, Emad Emani, Shirin Aghakashi, Mojtaba Pirzadeh, Sahra Asadollahe, Ehteram Boroumand and Sam Valipour
Studio: Cohen Media

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Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has recently captured media attention for his decision not to attend the Oscar ceremony in response to President Trump’s travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries; one hopes that the controversy will increase public interest in seeing his film, which has been nominated as Best Foreign-Language Film and is a strong contender to win, though the fact that his earlier picture, “A Separation,” took the prize in 2012 probably works against it.

The film takes its title from the fact that the couple at its center—Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a Tehran teacher, and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti)—are preparing an amateur production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in which they play Willy and Linda Loman. They have to deal with state censors and a fractious cast, but face a more immediate problem when their apartment building starts to shuffle and crack and the residents are compelled to evacuate. It seems good fortune when Babak (Babak Karimi), a member of their acting troupe, offers them a place he has for rent.

There are, however, drawbacks, the most notable being that the previous tenant has left behind many of her belongings in one of the rooms, having promised to retrieve them when she finds a new place. The reason for her departure, it’s eventually revealed, is that she is a lady who had many male visitors, a fact that gave the place an unsavory reputation. (Babak, it appears, was one of her regulars.) Not all of her customers, moreover, are aware that she’s no longer the tenant, and one evening Rana buzzes the door open, believing that she’s letting Emad in; it turns out to be someone else, however, and the man attacks her.

Rana is understandably traumatized, and Emad is frustrated by his inability to help her. Though her injuries are dealt with in the hospital, she vacillates between neediness and standoffishness with him, and refuses to report the assault to the authorities, knowing that she would be shamed rather than treated as a victim. (The neighbors, by and large, concur.) Frustrated, Emad turns sleuth himself. The perpetrator has, in his haste to escape, apparently left his truck behind, and Emad is able to identify it and, despite obstacles, use it to trap the culprit. The question is what to do with him, and the final sequence of the film, with its shifts of perspective, proves as lacerating a portrait of marriage and family in Iranian society as the one Farhadi presented in “A Separation,” though of a very different sort.

The film uses Miller’s play to exhibit the stark differences between the U.S. and Iran—a character in the play is supposed to appear in skimpy dress, but in this performance must, incongruously, be fully clothed to meet the censors’ demands—but also to point up the observations about relationships between men and women that both a mid-century American drama and present-day Iranian practice share. Willy and Emad both are revealed as self-centered, demanding to be seen as strong heads of household, capable of handling whatever reverses might arise in a virile, definitive way. By contrast both wives, Linda and Rana, are the ones who suffer—in different ways, of course—but they are the ones who ultimately must endure and pick up the pieces, however imperfectly. The presence of “Death of a Salesman,” which at first might simply seem just a cheeky cross-cultural joke, by the close takes on a degree of surprising significance.

The performances are all excellent, with Hosseini gradually transformed from genial and sympathetic to furiously obsessive, while Alidoosti more quietly conveys the profound resignation of a woman living under strictures we can only imagine, but with a vein of steely anger beneath. The supporting cast is also excellent, with Karimi conveying the hint of shiftiness appropriate to Babak and Farid Sajjadihosseni bringing remarkable depth to the figure that provides a skewered closure to the tale. With its subtle nuances and shifts, his is a turn that might remind you of the quality Peter Lorre managed to endow his character with in Fritz Lang’s “M.”

Keyvan Moghadam’s production design and Hossein Jafarian’s cinematography provide the necessary degree of realism, as well as more than a bit of unobtrusive artistry, but ultimately “The Salesman” is primarily a showcase for Farhadi and his actors—and they make the film as emotionally wrenching an experience as Miller’s masterpiece, even if it demands a degree of patience as it leads you to a shattering conclusion.

FENCES

Producer: Todd Black, Scott Rudin and Denzel Washington
Director: Denzel Washington
Writer: August Wilson
Stars: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney, Christopher Mele, Leslie Boone and Jason Silvis
Studio: Paramount Pictures

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It’s almost inevitable that the screen version of any great play is going to feel a mite stagey, not just because of confined settings but because of conventions of construction and what, to ears attuned to the sort of language employed in the vast majority of movies, will sound like theatrically elevated dialogue. That’s as true of films of modern classics like “Death of a Salesman” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” as it is of every Shakespeare adaptation. It’s also the case with Denzel Washington’s take on August Wilson’s “Fences,” one of the late Pittsburgh playwright’s ten-installment cycle of “Century Plays” designed to mirror the African-American experience over time. But any lack of simple realism hardly matters when the text is as brilliant as Wilson’s and the portrait it paints is as vividly and poignantly delivered as it is here.

Washington, taking on a role originally played by James Earl Jones that he first assumed in a well-regarded 2010 Broadway revival, gives a highly charged performance as Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh. He’s a character that might be described as larger than life, but for the fact that he’s recognizably real—a man at once proud of his accomplishments in the face of adversity and equally conscious of the racial barriers he’s had to struggle against. He’s managed, despite a troubled upbringing, to make a stable life for himself and his second wife, Rose (Viola Davis, brilliant), in a simple but functional house with a modest backyard that serves as a focus of activity. As he recounts in animated conversation with his long-time work buddy Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, superb), he’s just asked the department brass why all the blacks in their employ are collectors rather than drivers (a complaint that will earn him a slot as the first black man behind the wheel of a truck).

But Troy is beset by demons born of his own experience. He was a star in the Negro Baseball League before a player could move into the majors, and that continues to eat away at him, explaining his dismissal of the younger blacks who have integrated the game now. His failure to break the color barrier has nurtured the certainty that his younger son Cory (Jovan Adepo, who shows enormous promise), a high school football star, can’t take seriously an offer from a college scout; he orders the boy to keep his job at the local market instead of staying on the team, declaring that what Cory has to do is work his way up to a stable job rather than dream about things the system will never allow.

Troy has other strong opinions as well. One is the bitingly frugal attitude he takes toward his older son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), an easygoing musician who resists what he sees as his father’s drone-like attitude toward work. Troy, of course, won’t even make the effort to go to hear Lyons play, while sticking to his guns in refusing to lend him money. He’s more solicitous of his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson, affecting), a vet who came back from the war with a steel plate in his head who’s become the neighborhood eccentric, arrested periodically as a public nuisance and needing to be sprung from jail. As it happens, however, there’s a reason why Troy feels so obligated to watch over his brother besides the fraternal bond—and in the end his practicality will win out over family ties anyway.

It will turn out, in any event, that Troy’s greatest failing will involve his devoted wife, whom he will betray in the most fundamental way, mingling apology and justification in a fashion that brings her to desperation. It’s here that Davis, who until this point has maintained a steadily supportive tone, comes into her own, lashing out with a degree of passion that sets the screen ablaze. But as the final scenes show, she remains a rock who, however damaged by life she might be, refuses to shirk what she sees as a fundamental responsibility.

It would be foolish to ignore the kinship between Troy Maxson and Willie Loman, or between Wilson’s play and Miller’s. But while the earlier work was basically about class, “Fences” adds the racial factor to the equation, with devastating effect. And the sheer beauty of language, but without forced poetry, is something one rarely encounters on the screen nowadays. Wilson himself did the adaptation when a screen version was contemplated back in the late eighties but floundered over the choice of a director, and Washington has wisely embraced it here. Working closely with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen in the actual Pittsburgh neighborhood where the play was set, he has also given the piece visual fluidity without the sort of forced “opening up” of the action that a less sensitive helmer might have opted for. All the remaining technical contributions—David Gropman’s production design, Sharen Davis’ costumes, and Hughes Winborne’s editing—are unobtrusively expert, while Marcelo Zarvos’ score is subtly supportive.

Like all the plays in Wilson’s cycle, “Fences” is historically significant, but more importantly it remains dramatically powerful, and this fastidious yet vibrant film ensures that nothing has been lost in its translation to the screen. The play is a classic, but in Washington’s hands it has thankfully not become a museum piece.