Tuesday, October 31, 2017

2017 Winner, The Saleman

The Salesman

Director:  Asghar Farhadi

Distributed by:  Filmiran/Memento Films Distribution

Released:  May 2016

Country:  Iran

BERNARD: But sometimes, Willy, it’s better for a man just to walk away.
WILLY: Walk away?
BERNARD: That’s right.
WILLY: But if you can’t walk away?
BERNARD (after a slight pause): I guess that’s when it’s tough.  Good-by, Willy.
--from Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller

In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s tragic 1949 play, Willy Loman loves his sons, probably more than himself, but doesn’t know when to let their failures be their failures, and not his.  The Salesman, 2016’s Best Foreign Film winner, has its own Willy Loman character, a teacher and actor named Emad.  Like Willy, Emad will have a difficult time understanding that he can only control so much, and that as much as he may love his family, it is not always his place to protect them from their own difficulties.

Emad and Rana
Emad and his wife, Rana, live in an apartment building that is literally falling apart.  And when I say literally, I mean literally—one night they are forced to evacuate because it seems like the foundation has shifted and the whole structure may come down on them.  The couple have a friend named Babak who helps to set them up in a place where the former tenant had unexpectedly bailed, literally leaving everything behind her.  And when I say literally, I mean figuratively, because you can’t leave everything behind.  But this woman, it seems, left more than her material things in the apartment she abandoned, as Emad and Rana will soon learn.

Emad is a teacher of boys in a high school in Iran.  The kids think the world of him, like Robin Williams’ students do in Dead Poets Society.  They jokingly call him a “salesman,” because his other job is as an actor in a local theater, where his is starring as Willy Loman, with his wife as Willy’s wife Linda.  Emad and Rana clearly adore each other, and cheerfully are setting up themselves in their new place. 

Their relationship will get tested, though, when one day Rana, alone in the apartment, responds to the apartment bell by buzzing in her husband, leaving the door slightly ajar and going in for a shower.  Only it turns out it isn’t her husband at all, and the next thing you know, Emad is walking into the apartment to find blood on the shower floor and his wife nowhere to be seen.  He learns from neighbors that she was taken to the hospital, assaulted by the person Rana had let in.  Rana will eventually be okay, at least physically.

Hey Babak, maybe you coulda told us a hooker lived there!
This is where Emad has difficulty.  Rana doesn’t want to report the incident, and Emad does.  He feels like she should either report it so the police and handle it, or else drop it altogether.  This strains their relationship.  Emad does some investigating, and it becomes apparent that the former occupant was a prostitute.  Learning this also strains Emad’s friendship with Babak, whom he feels maybe could have mentioned that the previous tenant was a hooker.  Emad will struggle with this situation with agony:  He loves his wife and feels like he failed to protect her.  But like the guy he is portraying in Death of a Salesman, he must understand that the past is the past, and that his family has their own choices, and potentially mistakes, to make.

This is the second Best Foreign Film for Iran, both directed by Asghar Farhadi and starring Shahab Hosseini, who gives a wonderfully understated performance as Emad.  As in 2011’s A Separation, Farhadi allows the main turning point in the film to be muted, allowing the consequences to be the focus of the drama.  In that film, Hosseini’s character gently pushes a pregnant woman out of his apartment, and we only later see how life-altering this event will be.  In The Salesman, the assault happens off-camera, but the tension builds gradually afterward, as Emad deals with how his wife feels and his own need for vengeance.  Taraneh Alidoosti is excellent as Rana, more Biff than Linda in this story, having had to deal with a painful experience and needing to handle it on her own terms. 

What if you can't walk away?  I guess that's when it's tough
Farhadi has a knack for telling a simple story with simple characters, while raising complicated and thought-provoking questions.  In The Salesman, one of those complicated questions posed is when is it time to walk away?  Because if you can't, that is when it gets tough.

The Title: فروشنده‎ (in Persian), or Forušande.  Emad is the not a salesman by any meaning of the word, except that he plays Willy Loman in his neighborhood theater.  He is not the loser that Loman is, but like Loman, he acts irrationally, thinking he is helping his family.  The title of Miller’s play is itself a major spoiler—Emad’s fate is not in question, but his relationship with his wife is.

The culture:  As with A Separation, what struck me most with this film was its looking people on the other side of the world, seemingly so different from us as Americans, and putting them in situations that we can identify with.  Emad is a good man, and he is lucky to have such a partner as Rana, but his temper and his inability to check himself may lead to him losing her.

Agenda danger:  Famously, the director and actors boycotted the Academy Awards as a result of President Trump’s order temporarily blocking entry in the U.S. of Iranian citizens, as well as citizens of six other countries.  But this film has no political agenda or message.  It’s most controversial message is in pointing out the difficulty in communication between men and women, and in looking at when it is appropriate to forgive.

Best Picture that year:  La La Land.  Spotlight.

Rating:  This is the most recent Best Foreign Film winner, and as such, my last My BFF Project review.  It is a great note to go out on.  Most early winners of the prize, from the 1940’s on, with the exception of some Japanese films, tended to be Italian, French, or otherwise European.  The Salesman, the second Iranian winner of the prize, is characteristic of American appreciation of film throughout the world (strangely though, India has never won the award).  What makes The Salesman so interesting is how American it is, right down to the Miller play that lends it its title.  Like what I consider to be the best Best Foreign Film winners, it provides a window into life in a place Americans may not be familiar with, and does so in a way relatable to folks who may have never lived more than a few miles from their birthplace.  Films like The Salesman are the reason more Americans should be willing to read subtitles when they go to the movies.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

1947 Winner, Shoeshine


Director:  Vittorio De Sica

Distributed by:  Lopert Pictures

Released:  April 1946

Country:  Italy

In 1956, Federico Fellini won the first competitive Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for LaStrada, and it made him internationally famous.  He is the most widely known director from the country, Italy, that has won the most Best Foreign Film statues.  But before the Academy started the competitive award, it handed out eight Honorary Awards to films made in a language other than English in order to promote more of a relationship between American and International film.  The very first one of these special awards was given to Shoeshine, a neorealist film by Italian director and actor Vittorio De Sica.  De Sica may not be as known to Americans as Fellini is, but Shoeshine is the first of four Oscar winners De Sica would win during his long career.  That's as many as Fellini won.

Pasquale and Giuseppe bargain with the fortune teller
Shoeshine is a film about two young Italian chums, Giuseppe and Pasquale, who have a common goal: to own their own horse.  To earn money to achieve this, they shine the shoes of passers-by on the streets of post-war Rome.  They both know that they could shine a thousand pairs apiece and still not have enough to buy and board the horse they want, so when the opportunity comes to make some real dough, they jump on it.  Giuseppe’s older brother is in with some crooks who ask the boys to sell some expensive (and presumably stolen) blankets to a nearby fortune teller.  The boys are told that the higher they negotiate the price, the more they will get.  But during the negotiations, the police swoop in and accuse the boys of selling stolen goods, taking them away.  Only the police look a heck of a lot like the criminals who gave them the blankets to sell in the first place.  The fake cops take the boys out of the apartment and tell them to hit the bricks, allowing them to keep whatever the woman gave them for the blankets.  They are so happy to have enough to buy their horse that they don’t even consider what Giuseppe’s brother and his friends really had in mind—to rob the fortune teller blind.

No more shines for these two.
So Giuseppe and Pasquale are riding along on their new horse like war heroes through the streets of Rome when some real police and the fortune teller stop them.  She insists these are the boys that set up the robbery of her place, and not being stool pigeons, they keep their mouths shut.  Giuseppe, the younger and the more plucky of the two, is adamant that they not rat out his brother.  The boys are put in juvenile detention while they await their fate, split up and put into cells with four other kids each.  They will have to make it without each other for a while, and make new friends and avoid new enemies.  You get the feeling it won’t end well.

Shoeshine is a story about loyalty and what the definition of that word means.  As a prime example of Italian neorealism, like De Sica’s masterpiece of two years later, The Bicycle Thief, the characters are played by non-actors, making it seem all the more true-to-life.  It’s hard not to hope for the best for these boys, yet there is always a sinking feeling that it won’t work out.  It’s like being a Cleveland sports fan.

"Hey Tommy, now go home and get your !@#$% shinebox!"
The Title: Sciuscià.  The job of a shoeshine boy was important in post-war Italy, what with all the poverty.  Believe it or not, there are a number of famous folks who started out as shoeshine boys, such as Malcolm X, Sammy Sosa, and James Brown.  Most notably, Tommy DeVito in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas was a shoeshine boy when he was a kid, as Billy Batts, mobster fresh out of prison, reminds him repeatedly.  Batts doesn’t make too many more memories after that.

The culture:  Poverty in post-war Europe led to desperation in some cases, with crime rising as the best way to feed your family.  Certainly the shoeshine boys mixed up in the rip-off of the fortune teller looked the other way so they could forget about their miserable lives for a little and live the dream of having their own horse. 

Agenda danger:  The movie gives a hard look at how to deal with kids who aren’t quite as bad as the
The Bowery Boys, a.k.a, the Dead End Kids
crimes they commit.  Giuseppe and Pasquale both are good kids at heart, but once they get thrown into a prison of kids that look like the Bowery Boys, they have to adapt to survive.  The film pulls no punches in showing how bleak and soul-sucking such an atmosphere can be for kids who one would hope still have a chance to turn things around.

Best Picture that year:  Gentleman’s Agreement

Rating:  The Bicycle Thief is rightly and widely praised as one of the greatest films ever made, but De Sica made three other films that won Best Foreign Film (including Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), and Shoeshine should not be overlooked as one of Italy’s great films.  Like De Sica is somewhat overlooked in comparison to Fellini, Shoeshine is overshadowed by the greatness that is The Bicycle Thief.  And that is indeed a real crime.