SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Asghar Farhadi, who is one of Iran's best-known filmmakers, won an Oscar for his film "A Separation." He's been nominated this year for his latest movie, "The Salesman." Howie Movshovitz of member station KUNC has this report on that new film, which was inspired by Arthur Miller's "Death Of A Salesman."
HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ, BYLINE: Rana and Emad are a wife and husband who play the Lomans in a Tehran production of Miller's play. As the film opens, they wake up to discover their apartment building is starting to collapse.
(SOUNDBITE OF "THE SALESMAN" FILM)
MOVSHOVITZ: Writer and director Asghar Farhadi says the fractures in the apartment house are a metaphor.
ASGHAR FARHADI: (Through interpreter) One of the themes in the film is about these cracks that happens around everything, both physically and mentally. The cracks on the windows and on the walls and then between the relationships of the people.
MOVSHOVITZ: The faulty construction is revealed by the stress of new construction next door.
(SOUNDBITE OF "THE SALESMAN" FILM)
MOVSHOVITZ: The cracks in the marriage are exposed by a single incident, just as they are in Miller's play. In the film, the couple moves to a new apartment. And Rana leaves the door open. Gradually, we learn that an old man looking for the prostitute who used to live there enters. No one can agree on what happens after that, and the film doesn't show it.
FARHADI: (Through interpreter) It's like in real life. Everybody sees the truth from their point of view. It's like a puzzle that no one has the complete - the whole thing. And it's like a mirror that is broken on the ground, and everybody just see different parts of that mirror, just sees himself or herself in that broken mirror.
MOVSHOVITZ: And that gives rise to speculation among the neighbors and suspicion in the husband. Was his wife sexually assaulted or only spied upon? She says she can't remember and nobody wants to go to the police because that will just create more problems.
JAMSHEED AKRAMI: Farhadi is an insightful social commentator. He cares deeply about what's going on in his country, and his movies can be really probing and poignant commentaries on Iranian realities.
MOVSHOVITZ: Jamsheed Akrami teaches film at William Paterson University in New Jersey. He also directed "The Cinema Of Discontent," a documentary about censorship in Iran.
AKRAMI: The Iranian system is a theocracy, and in a theocracy it's always the government that prescribes the right behavior for the people. So people have to pretend all the time that they're behaving the right way. So the Iranian people live a double life, a life in public, which is to the liking of the government, and a life in private, which is the one they choose to live.
MOVSHOVITZ: The intimacies of private life are taboo on screen in Iran. "The Salesman" shows the couple's bedroom but never with the couple on the bed. The filmmaker was forced to cut one scene in which a woman is heard singing because that, too, is banned. Akrami says Iranians use foreign art, like Miller's "Death Of A Salesman," to look at their own situation.
AKRAMI: "Death Of A Salesman" was a popular play before the revolution. And I remember the movie "A Place In The Sun," the movie that George Stevens made based on Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy," was also quite popular because they're all about the American dream and how it turns into a nightmare. And you can see a parallel in this movie between how an American dream turned into nightmare is played on the stage and at the same time, you see this real-life couple and the dissolution and disintegration of their dream as a married couple.
MOVSHOVITZ: Filmmaker Asghar Farhadi says that movies can show us the things we share, personal things the news does not.
FARHADI: (Through interpreter) I really believe that in this new age, the media tries to show that we are very different from each other and separate us from each other. But our similarities, I believe, are way more than our differences. But the media works more on the differences.
MOVSHOVITZ: Yet he uses one of the media's tools to tell his story - a handheld camera.
FARHADI: (Through interpreter) I really want to show the audience that this is a real life and usually we note news reports from the handheld. That's what their audience believe that when something is handheld it's a real, real life. And I want to show the audience that - don't think this is a film. This is a real life.
MOVSHOVITZ: For Farhadi, the play he uses to spin his story has both specific and general significance. Just as Willy Loman jumps back and forth between a reality he can't accept and his fantasies and memories of an imagined past, the scenes in "The Salesman" shift back and forth between the actors on stage and their lives outside the theater. Farhadi says he wants to capture the uncertainty he sees in Iranian society.
FARHADI: (Through interpreter) The last scene, when the family of that old guy come to their house, it looks like a theater scene. Even the lighting of the lamps that are hanging from the walls make it feel like it's a theater. And they turn it off and turn it on, and you will ask yourself for a second, are we watching a theater or is it a real life?
MOVSHOVITZ: Asghar Farhadi has a tremendous international reputation, which invites criticism at home that he panders to the outside world. Yet "The Salesman" has been his most successful film in Iran so far. For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.