Rock of Ages


Pierre Bismuth, Where Is Rocky II?, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 93 minutes.

A TEASER, says screenwriter Mike White midway through a manic cameo, should tell you exactly what you’re going to get. Where Is Rocky II?, the directorial debut of artist Pierre Bismuth, is a slick, evasive splice of reality TV, documentary, cinema verité, Hollywood spoof, and collateral art history. Real Hollywood. Real artwork. Fake rock. Inspired by a true story: the hunt for a little-known and never-seen work by Ed Ruscha—a fiberglass boulder that has been tucked among the Mojave’s endless spread of granite ones since 1979.

There was almost no story at all—but Bismuth directs by withholding, until the tracks of his confused cast begin to resemble a plot. He enlists real Hollywood writers Anthony Peckham and D.V. DeVincentis to work their magic on the facts while at the same time retaining Michael Scott, an actual private investigator, to hunt down that fake rock. Scott sets out with a name—Ed Ruscha—and a production still from a 1979 BBC short that is the sculpture’s only(?) extant documentation. It’s a good clean laugh when he pulls into a tire shop on Route 62, photo in hand, and asks if anyone has seen a rock. An art-world audience gets a snicker too when Scott starts Googling and then interviewing LA principals from Connie Butler to Eli Broad, who, well—yes, they’ve heard of Ed Ruscha. Everyone’s having such a good time on this madcap side project that they would rather defer the obvious: a simple clue from Ruscha (mercifully reticent) would have cleared things up posthaste.

Especially these days, when the truth is so sorely used, it would be a bit of a spoiler to admit that sometimes mystery is the victim, and that some truths are better left unfound. Yet there are those for whom the mere rumor of art is not enough; the detective needs to nab his man and, as for the screenwriters, if something is hidden, there must be something inside. (“The body of his first dealer, in a cube of resin . . .”) Scott finally tracks down Jim Ganzer, a Malibu surfer who inspired the Dude in Big Lebowski, palled around with the Ferus boys, and, oh yeah, once back in 1977 helped Ruscha fabricate a certain artwork. A map is produced. They set off on the rock’s cold trail. In a tender shot-matching homage, Bismuth’s 4K footage nestles into the BBC’s 16 mm: Scott and Ganzer’s late-model SUV crests unpaved roads and fades into Ruscha’s rock-laden pickup. But it’s too late. By now we’re in deep desert at the golden hour, enveloped by total cliché. A woodpecker jabs a Joshua tree, a little dry grass rustles in the bottom-right edge, and the cheesy music swells. It really is beautiful out there. It really is.

Travis Diehl

Where Is Rocky II? had its US premiere January 13 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Joshua Bonnetta and J. P. Sniadecki, El mar la mar, 2017, 16 mm, color, sound, 94 minutes.

THE DESERT IS A LIVING ENTITY, a beast that threatens to consume all trespassers. Many who attempt to cross it on the journey from Mexico to the United States fail, leaving a trail of corpses—if the victims don’t disappear altogether. El mar la mar, one of the few highlights so far of the Sixty-Seventh Berlin International Film Festival, takes us beyond rhetoric and to the place itself: that vast, shadowless landscape littered with the detritus of those who have braved its hostile climes.

El mar la mar was made by J. P. Sniadecki, who, together with Joshua Bonnetta (who also has a desert-themed installation, LAGO, in this year’s Berlinale), is doing more than just about any other young contemporary filmmaker to reconceive the documentary. The project is collaborative on every level: Sniadecki and Bonnetta worked together on the audio—a haunting collage of borderland soundscapes and interviews with inhabitants and migrants—and the wandering visuals. Captured on 16 mm, the grainy images project a distant past, yet the living testimonies of those who have witnessed the death and desperation—their voices often isolated in the resounding darkness of a black screen—demonstrate how burningly present the subject is. Ultimately, it is the cruel topography that emerges as the film’s protagonist. As one of the interviewees comments, “It’s amazing to see how everything out here has evolved to survive this environment. Everything out here can kill you: animals, plants, the sun. Even the insects are poisonous. Everything has its own built-in defense mechanism.”

The violence hinted at in El mar la mar is explored full-force in La liberdad del diablo (Devil’s Freedom), Everardo González’s collection of interviews with survivors and witnesses of the carnage generated by Mexico’s drug cartels, military, and police—as well as with some of the perpetrators themselves. All the interviewees wear the same flesh-colored mask to conceal their features as a protective measure against the very real threat of retaliation.

“Americans love their country,” noted the late Charles Bowden, America’s foremost chronicler of the past decade’s chaos on the Mexican border. “But they can’t seem to stand it unless they’re stoned out of their minds.” The violence, depicted through the words of those who have experienced it firsthand, can be attributed not only to the United States’ ravenous desire for drugs produced in Mexico but also to NAFTA, which has decimated the lives of Mexican factory workers and small farmers who can no longer make a decent living, producing a culture of poverty that has, in turn, engineered a generation ripe for recruitment by drug cartels. Trump’s idiotic rhetoric about the wall serves no higher purpose than to deny the US’s responsibility for the violence that has destroyed so many Mexican lives.

This week also saw the premiere of Tania Libre, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s record of Cuban dissident artist Tania Bruguera’s conversations with trauma specialist Dr. Frank Ochberg in his New York office, filmed shortly after her passport was returned following her detention and subsequent interrogation by Cuban state security forces.

For Bruguera fans who are already in on the backstory, the film’s most revealing moment is when Ochberg prompts Bruguera to talk about her father, who, it turns out, once occupied a prominent position in Fidel Castro’s government. But good documentary doesn’t rest merely on compelling subject matter. As Sniadecki knows, it’s how the medium is advanced in the process of conveying that subject. Unfortunately, Tania Libre might pass in a white-cube setting, but less so in the context of an international film festival. Its flaws in editing and direction would be easier to overlook were this year’s Berlinale not plagued with technical, organizational, and programming blunders. The best part of the screening was the Q&A, for which, thankfully, the fiercely intelligent Bruguera was present to counterbalance the embarrassingly disengaged festival moderator, whose comical struggle to put together a question actually at one point provoked laughter from the audience.

This would be unremarkable were it not symptomatic of so much of the moderation. Add to that a deep display of incompetence—at the premiere screening of Jang Woo-jin’s Autumn, Autumn, for which the entire crew traveled to Berlin from Seoul, a broken speaker distorted the sound throughout the film to the point of distraction—and a troubling picture begins to emerge. Berlin is already behind Cannes and Venice in terms of prominence, but unless the next Berlin International Film Festival receives an infusion of new blood, the “international” in its title might no longer refer to its audience.

Travis Jeppesen

The Sixty-Seventh International Filmfestspiele Berlin runs February 9 through 19.

Kedi Porn


Ceyda Torun, Kedi, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 79 minutes. Bengü.

If Make America Kittens—the Chrome extension that instantly replaces Donald Trump’s face with images of adorable cats—no longer blots out the horror, try Kedi, Ceyda Torun’s celebration of the felines of Istanbul and the humans who nurture them, or at the very least appreciate living among them. Never cute, this documentary about the interspecies bonding that defines daily life in Istanbul’s old town is as resourceful, agile, and scruffily seductive as its seven feline stars and supporting cast of hundreds.

Torun, who grew up in the city, says that she would not be the person she is today were it not for the street cats who were her childhood friends. I feel similarly about seeing Bambi (1942) at an impressionable age, although Disney’s nightmare vision of hunters and forest fires left me as bereft and terrified as the animals on the screen, despite the happy ending. (David Cronenberg named Bambi the most influential film in his life.) When I moved to SoHo in the early 1970s, there were more cats than humans residing in the industrial neighborhood, lounging against storefront windows, slipping through holes in loading platforms to sleep in warm basements, or huddling under cars in parking lots. For eight years, I fed cats all along Wooster Street, took in nine of them, and found homes for others, and I still weep for the three whose lives I probably made worse in trying to rescue them. Then there was gentrification, and seemingly overnight, the cats and most of their caregivers were gone.

To reassure anyone who right now can’t deal with any more pain, nothing bad happens to any of Kedi’s feline or human creatures. (Well, there’s one tiny comatose kitten.) It’s not that their future is assured. Implicit in the aerial shots that wordlessly depict the extent of the city’s modernization is the threat of the loss of habitat. Who knows how much of the picturesque Bosporus Harbor neighborhood, with its sprawling outdoor markets and centuries-old houses whose windows are always open and roofs easy to scale, still exists. Throughout the film, people worry about what will happen to the cats when they lose their homes and shops. Sitting next to a box of newborn kittens and a pair of adult cats curled up together, a woman, who has heard that her shop will soon be razed to make way for a road, confides that she is more concerned about the cats than herself and her neighbors. “If we have to leave, they’ll have no one.”

In Kedi, Torun captures what remains of her childhood paradise, creating a remembrance of and a model for a generous and humane way of life. (The film also must have been shot before the 2016 failed military coup.) Charlie Wuppermann’s alert, sinuous handheld camerawork is a major asset, as is the subtly emotive score by Kira Fontana. But if Kedi never feels like a memory piece, it is because cats always live in the present moment. That’s why one man says they are better for him than his worry beads: “A cat curled up at your feet is life smiling at you.”

What these Istanbulites value in the cats that adopt them is their independence. And that they have not been civilized of their instincts. Alley Cat Allies and other spay/neuter/release groups will have problems with Kedi. The Istanbul cats are doted on for being good mothers and fierce, territorial boyfriends. The same people who cook up twenty pounds of chicken a day and distribute kibble and water to outdoor feeding stations also run tabs at every neighborhood vet. But spay/neuter is never mentioned, although a woman notes that cats lose their catlike nature when they live inside. It’s a compromise, imposed by humans on cats, that she seems to know firsthand.

Few of those who locate the soul of the city in its cat population would endorse such a compromise. As much as the cat guardians of Istanbul anthropomorphize the felines they nurture, they are in love with their otherness. “Being friends with cats is what I imagine it would be like with aliens,” says the proprietor of a lovely clothing store where cats wander in and out more often than customers. “You open a different line of communication.”

Amy Taubin

Kedi plays through February 16 at the Metrograph in New York.

Travis Wilkerson, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, 2017, color, sound, 70 minutes.

DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN?, Travis Wilkerson’s 2017 film/performance, was one of the strongest works at a chilling Sundance Film Festival, where the temperatures averaged five degrees Fahrenheit at night and many works spoke of destruction and suffering so great as to make one feel like a spoiled brat for even mentioning the weather.

A veteran of Sundance, Wilkerson showed, as usual, in the New Frontier section, once devoted to experimental films of all genres but now largely a showcase for the Sundance Institute’s Virtual Reality initiative. Which is a pity, because however much I’d like to support Sundance’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for the “new frontier” of VR, nothing I’ve seen at this festival or elsewhere in the past three years convinces me that it is a technology suited to anything other than advertising, gaming, military procedures, and medical techniques.

I could elaborate on the eight VR pieces I “experienced” (there were more than two dozen installed in two large venues), but I’d rather not, except to say that they ranged from the tedious to the crudely exploitative. Moreover, the opening ten days of the Trump presidency was hardly the time to celebrate a technology that is defined by its capacity to derange one’s perceptual apparatus so that one experiences, almost always in insolation, an alt-reality. And in answer to one of VR’s staunchest proponents, I don’t believe that the “visceral sensation” of being in immediate proximity to a dying coral reef, experienced for twenty seconds inside a clumsy headset, will make anyone who wasn’t already an environmental activist metamorphose into one. It’s more likely that Jeff Orlowski’s eye- and mind-opening documentary Chasing Coral—for which Chasing Coral: The VR Experience, is, at most, an attractive trailer—would have that effect.

Nothing could be further from VR than the direct, quietly confrontational human-to-human power of Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? For twenty years, Wilkerson, one of the most rigorous and intelligent American documentarians, has been making films that interrogate the malevolent effects of capitalism on the American Dream, often digging up long-buried crimes to show how they continue to shape our lives. His analyses are firmly leftist, and his practices are inspired by the Latin American Third Cinema Movement, specifically by Santiago Álvarez, whom he met a few years before the Cuban filmmaker’s death in 1998. Unlike most American documentarians, Wilkerson shoots and edits his films and does not work within public television. Sundance’s New Frontier began to embrace him with his 2002 An Injury to One, which investigated the all-but-forgotten 1917 lynching of Wobbly union leader Frank Little in Butte, Montana, by enforcers hired by the Anaconda Mining Company. The murder was just the beginning of the injurious practices that destroyed workers and the environment throughout the century and beyond.

William Faulkner’s now-famous observation, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” could apply to An Injury to One, but it is even more apropos to Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, which, like all of Faulkner’s novels, is set in the deep South, in the small town of Dothan, Alabama, where S. E. Branch, a white supremacist and Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, shot and killed a black man named Bill Spann in Branch’s grocery store. Branch was charged with murder, but the case never went to trial and he suffered no consequences. In the opening moments of the piece, Wilkerson explains that the idea to make a film, which would investigate both his great-grandfather and his victim, came when he was at a protest in South Los Angeles after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin. “I couldn’t get it out of my head how much the story of Trayvon Martin reminded me of a family legend.” From this protest comes the “Say His/Her Name” chant that Wilkerson uses to mark the film’s chapters. At the end of the piece, Bill Spann’s name is added to the list.

At Sundance, Wilkerson sat to the side of the screen, facing the audience, and read aloud the voiceover narration. He told me that at a Creative Capital retreat (Did You Wonder was largely funded by the grant-giving organization) he presented the film as a work in progress. Since he hadn’t yet mixed his voiceover into the sound track, he read it live as he did at Sundance, and he found that this performance strategy had a powerful effect on both him and the audience. The power has to do with it being a personal story, told in the first-person; in sharing it with an audience, Wilkerson doesn’t let anyone, including himself, off the hook. “This isn’t a white savior story. This is a white nightmare story.” Wilkerson plans, for the sake of getting the film out in the world, to integrate the voiceover into the existing sound track, but he will be doing a live reading at the few venues that are already booked. (The next is March 2–5 at the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri.)

Grief and anger are palpable in the images, music, and texts that make up Did You Wonder Who Shot the Gun? Wilkerson collages family photos (one of himself as an infant on great-granddaddy Branch’s lap), 8-mm home movies, photos of documents and newsprint articles, on-camera interviews, and, most tellingly, handheld footage from his investigations. There’s the decaying wood structure that was the scene of the crime; the abandoned hospital where Spann died; and the grave in the black cemetery in another town miles away, to which he was directed by an African American clerk after the white woman in charge told him that there’s no record of Spann.

That almost turns out to be the case. All that’s left of Bill Spann is an unmarked grave. His killer, however, does not lack for memorializing images and people who remember him. Many, but not all, of the memories are bad. Wilkerson’s mother is one of three sisters who grew up in the same town as their grandfather. Jean, the eldest, is an active member of the White Supremacist League of the South. Wilkerson’s mother and her sister Jill want nothing to do with her. One of the questions that haunts me weeks after I saw the piece is how to make sense of that difference. How is it that some people escape the racism and misogyny in which they are raised (Branch abused his wife and daughters and likely killed more than one black man) and some cling to it as their reason for existence? Wilkerson doesn’t offer an answer. But raising the question—at this moment when families are torn apart by what they believe America is and should be—is more than enough.

Amy Taubin

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? ran January 20 and 22 at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre as part of the Sundance Film Festival (January 19–31).

Bruce Lee, Robert Clouse, and Sammo Hung, Game of Death, 1978, 35 mm, color, sound, 90 minutes. Bruce Lee.

BRUCE LEE IS AMONG THE HANDFUL OF MOVIE STARS to attain a celebrity beyond mere stardom. Not long after his premature death in 1973, he joined the elite ranks of the few figures who would be recognizable from Madagascar to the Amazon basin, such as John Wayne and Muhammad Ali. Lee’s image, like Wayne’s and Ali’s, had political import. A late friend of my father’s, Bill Wood, who was in Iran in the 1970s, once recalled to me how much the Shah’s army loved Lee’s movies: “The first international Asian hero; he emboldened a lot of people, including a few we’d rather not talk about.” (Osama bin Laden was a superfan.)

Lee’s cult received a fresh infusion of energy in the early 1990s by way of a pulp biopic (the 1993 Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) and the replay of the curiously familiar pattern of brief celebrity and tragic death in the case of his son, Brandon, who died at age twenty-eight on the set of OST tie-in The Crow (1994). This was the period of my own adolescence, and I wonder if there is a child of my generation who hasn’t at least once acted out the clucks and drawn out cat-fight hisses with which Lee interspersed his combat. Lee has often been imitated. In 1973, Marvel Comics put a knockoff in print and called it “Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu.” Following Lee’s death, hosts of imposters flocked to fill the void he’d left, the so-called Lee-alikes of the Brucesploitation boom: Bruce Li, Bruce Lei, Bruce Le, and, my personal favorite, Bruce Liang, whose The Dragon Lives Again (1977) catches up with Bruce in the Underworld, where he tangles with the likes of Dracula, Popeye, and the Man with No Name. Some years later, Lee would reappear in new digital avatars: Liu Kang in Mortal Kombat, Fei Long in Street Fighter II, and still others. His name survives as a byword for peerless excellence—a few years back, Eminem could express the desire to be “the Bruce Lee of loose leaf” and everyone still pretty much knew what he meant. And while the image of Lee continues to perpetuate itself, the Museum of Modern Art’s tribute, “Eternal Bruce Lee,” consisting of the five features in which he stars, allows one to consider the slim cinematic legacy from which the extracinematic legend grew.

Lee was, among other things, an ambassador for martial arts. In the Lee-directed The Way of the Dragon (1972), a character saying the words “kung fu” prompts a hard cut to an impossibly cut Lee practicing his forms, flexing and rippling muscles that names hadn’t yet been devised for: a man in full. You can almost hear the jangle of cash registers at kwoon halls and dojos across the world.

Lee was perhaps uniquely situated to play the role of popularizer and exporter. Though raised in Kowloon, Hong Kong, for most of his formative years, he was a dual citizen, born in San Francisco. Show business was in Lee’s blood. His father was a Cantonese opera singer, and Lee made his film debut as a baby in 1941, appearing in Golden Gate Girl, a since-lost independent effort by the Chinese American filmmaker Esther Eng. As a teenager in Hong Kong he began to study Wing Chun with the legendary teacher Yip Man—the subject of Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013), among a great many other pop films—and after returning to the US he became something of a celebrity in competitive martial-arts circles. This led to television roles, the most prominent of which was sidekick Kato on the single season of the ABC series The Green Hornet (1966), and a gig as a sought-after teacher to the stars. His students included James Coburn, screenwriter Sterling Silliphant, future The Game of Death (1978) opponent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and director Blake Edwards, who subsequently gave his Inspector Clouseau a punch-line sidekick, Cato, in his Pink Panther franchise.

Despite his growing rolodex, Lee’s acting ambitions stalled due to the lack of roles for Asian actors in 1960s Hollywood—famously, he lost the lead role in ABC’s Kung Fu to David Carradine—and so he signed a two-film deal with producer Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest and headed to Hong Kong, beginning the meteoric rise that would end with his death only three years later.

Bruce Lee, The Way of the Dragon, 1972, 35 mm, color, sound, 99 minutes. Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee.

Lee’s filmography is a hoot to revisit, though it conspicuously lacks a masterpiece. Probably the best all-around movie that Lee ever appeared in is Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), which includes a scene where Isabelle Adjani gropes Polanski’s crotch while they watch Enter the Dragon (1973). His Golden Harvest movies, The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972), introduce Lee’s screen persona, that of a defender of the little man. In the first he’s a newly arrived immigrant in Thailand who becomes the champion of exploited workers at the ice factory where he takes a job; in the second, he is a pupil of martial-arts master Huo Yuanjia, who as the film opens is dead from poisoning, leaving Lee’s Chen Zhen to wreak revenge on the Japanese interlopers who swagger around Shanghai like they own the place. His character became an emblem of indomitable Chinese pride and strength in an era of national humiliation. (The movie is set in the early years of the nineteenth century, but the production designers didn’t overtax themselves in evoking the period.) Among the enemies that Bruce wipes the floor with is a Russian giant, Petrov (Lee’s student and friend, the Californian Robert Baker), which established a pattern of pitting Lee against occidental bruisers that reached its apotheosis in the Roman coliseum faceoff with Chuck Norris in The Way of the Dragon (1972).

Both Golden Harvest films are kept moving along adequately enough by director Lo Wei, though they really spring to life in the combat set pieces, which Lee took in hand himself, bringing to bear knowhow he’d accrued during his time in American movies and television. He combined remarkable strength with whip-crack speed, and his hand-to-hand scenes still play beautifully, save for the occasional handheld POV interstices, which were an unfortunate hallmark of the period. But Lee’s athleticism only goes part of the way toward explaining his popularity; the rest is in his self-presentation and showmanship, which was already legendary when he was making the rounds at martial-arts tournaments, doing pushups with a single finger and demonstrating his “one-inch punch.” He sells every punch, appearing as both combatant and appreciative spectator to his own combat—after dispatching an opponent with a deathblow he will remain holding his pose, a trembling tableau vivant contemplating the weapon of his fist as though it were not a part of him. In both The Big Boss and The Way of the Dragon, he teases the audience with his character’s initial pacifism, not giving the immediate gratification of a taste of his virtuosity but holding himself in reserve, making you want it, wait for it. When they finally come, his fights are always filigreed with little flourishes, like the nunchaku twirling performances that he loved to put on, the way he flicks open the top buttons of his tunic before going to town, or the bit of business where he spurs himself on with the taste of his own blood, first used in The Big Boss and then in Enter the Dragon. While playing a champion of the disenfranchised, he embodied the disdain of an aristocratic dandy, stomping on enemies as though snuffing a smoldering cigarette butt. Finally, he was an undeniably good-looking dude who exuded cool—a legitimate sex symbol in a way that later crossover stars such as Jackie Chan or Jet Li never were.

Enter the Dragon, a US-Hong Kong coproduction directed by Robert Clouse, appeared in theaters shortly after the shocking news of Lee’s death, circumstances which turned what probably would have been a hit movie regardless into a cultural phenomenon. Enter has the pleasure of costar John Saxon totally bluffing his karate and probably the most famous scene in any Lee movie, the pursuit of Shih Kien’s villain, Mr. Han, into a hall of mirrors maze lifted from Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947), though the Rome-set The Way of the Dragon is his most purely enjoyable starring vehicle. Among other things it airs out Lee’s low-comic sense of humor, which suggests the matter of influence between him and Blake Edwards was a two-way street—fresh off the plane, he spends the first reel of the movie battling diarrhea, and the Norris fight contains the unforgettable moment where Lee rips a hunk of hair out of his hirsute opponent’s chest.

Later, after having bested Norris, Lee thoughtfully covers his foe’s broken, lifeless body, a sign of respect—though no such reverent treatment was forthcoming after Lee’s death, for there was still money to be made. From the existent footage of what was to be Lee’s sophomore directorial outing, Clouse cobbled together Game of Death, utilizing doubles as well as, in a plotline involving Lee’s character faking his own death, open casket footage from Lee’s own funeral. Rarely has a life been so thoroughly and shamelessly exploited, and yet Lee’s legacy has suffered from this treatment not at all. Heirs to the throne have come and gone, but none that move with such explosive force, with such panache.

Nick Pinkerton

“Eternal Bruce Lee” runs January 27 through February 4 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Asghar Farhadi, The Salesman, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 125 minutes. Emad and Rana (Shahab Hossein and Taraneh Alidoosti).

ASGHAR FARHADI’S THE SALESMAN is the director’s latest, most excruciating dissection of contemporary Iran. As in his other films, Farhadi treats social conditions, and the urban blight and political corruption they imply, almost tangentially. They are neither ignored nor his primary focus, and they are not the target of the characters’ or the viewers’ animus. For a lesser director, the catastrophic early scene in which an apartment building almost collapses, forcing its tenants to seek temporary quarters elsewhere, would have been a sufficient cause for the events that follow. But Farhadi’s method is more psychologically astute and essential to his aesthetic; he is more interested in the ambiguities and the nuances of human drama, in how people deal with domestic and personal crises generated by external circumstances. And so we follow Emad and Rana, a young married couple as they search for a place to live while trying to maintain their lives. Emad is a high school literature teacher, and both he and Rana perform in local theater––currently a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

As if the crumbling walls in their apartment building were a foreshadowing of worse to come, a more personal catastrophe exposes cracks of another sort. As in Farhadi’s A Separation (2011), a haphazard event provokes ever-widening consequences. Coincidences, nagging suspicions, half-truths, and unnerving disclosures accumulate while the catalytic incident that prompted them occurs off-screen and remains ambiguous. Though clearly a byproduct of the couple’s forced move, this event produces even worse consequences. Unknown to them, the woman leasing a room in their temporary digs has frequent male visitors. One day, Rana, about to take a bath and thinking her husband is on his way up the stairs, leaves the door to the apartment ajar. We learn after the fact that a stranger entered the apartment and either molested or threatened to molest her, causing her to fall unconscious in the bathtub. Embarrassed to face interrogations, Rana refuses to speak to the police and can barely confide in her husband. More than one character agrees that police intervention would be pointless and would only expose her to shame and unwarranted accusations—an allusion to how ingrained social attitudes determine action, but suggested here without undue stress. Because Rana can neither be left alone nor continue rehearsing the play, tensions between husband and wife grow.

While Farhadi’s characters are embedded in a specific social context, their appeal and their situations are not circumscribed by cultural conditions. In The Salesman, this reach toward universality is reflected by the parallel the film draws between the unsettling event that changes the characters’ lives and the tragic fate of Willy Loman, the hapless everyman of Miller’s play. But while the latter places the fate of its protagonist within a context of changing times, Farhadi’s film conveys that there are neither easy answers nor easy solutions to the messiness of life, and one-dimensional characters, whether heroes or villains, are lame efforts to suggest otherwise.

In contrast to the inevitable denouement of the well-structured tragedy, Farhadi takes us toward an unexpected turn of events that precludes catharsis. Because his wife refuses to talk to the police, Emad, unable to contain his fury, seeks satisfaction himself. He is assisted in this quest when he happens upon the cellphone, keys, and money left behind by the stranger in his desperate flight out of the apartment. In tracking down the perpetrator, he embarks on a path that exposes his own flaws and patriarchal tendencies, at odds with the protagonist we first encounter as a gifted artist, loving husband, and dedicated teacher. His search leads both to unexpected revelations and a 180-degree turn in the thrust of the narrative and our understanding of its characters—not to be disclosed here, and no doubt the reason Farhadi won the award for best screenplay at Cannes.

It is a mistake to dismiss Farhadi’s narrative strategies as contrived, as some critics have. To do so underestimates the way his method generates close examination of the contradictions and subtleties of human behavior. His strongest asset as a director is his unbounded fascination with and compassion for the frailties of personality. What happens to his characters is as much a result of moral weakness as it is of accident and social conditions. Along with that, of course, is his unfailing talent for wresting moving, fine-tuned performances from his actors. Most outstanding among them are Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti as Emad and Rana and Farid Sajadhosseini as the intruding stranger.

Tony Pipolo

The Salesman opens in select theaters on Friday, January 27.