Arguably Iran's leading filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi already has one Oscar (for 2012's A Separation), and the upcoming Academy Awards would give him a chance to take home another. But with the announcement of President Trump's travel ban, the red carpet suddenly was pulled out from under him.
Farhadi initially had planned to still attend, but as circumstances developed, he issued a statement saying he would not be present. "It now seems that the possibility of this presence is being accompanied by ifs and buts, which are in no way acceptable to me, even if exceptions were to be made for my trip," he wrote. "Hardliners, despite their nationalities, political arguments and wars, regard and understand the world in very much the same way. In order to understand the world, they have no choice but to regard it via an 'us and them' mentality, which they use to create a fearful image of 'them' and inflict fear in the people of their own countries."
As a luminary of world cinema, Farhadi will be missed at the Academy Awards. But whether or not The Salesman wins the foreign-language Oscar, his film will continue to convey a message about the need for empathy - one made all the more powerful by recent events.
Alternately a crime thriller, a psychodrama with Hitchcockian plot twists and a relationship study, the film revolves around a middle-class couple, Emad and Rana, in Tehran. When they are forced to evacuate their apartment building, a fellow actor in their theater troupe lets them move into one of his vacant units - without telling them the previous tenant was a woman "with many acquaintances." One day, Rana unwittingly admits one of the woman's clients into the apartment, and he assaults her in the shower. Afterward, the couple gradually change roles: At first a gentle, if ineffectual, husband, Emad becomes blinded by vengeance; Rana, confronted with her attacker - a frail old man - transforms from someone cold and unfeeling into a figure of mercy.
The film also is a window into Iranian society, where people struggle to cope with the pace of change just like everywhere else in the world.
"The similarities among people in different parts of the world far surpass their differences," says Farhadi. "The flavor of love is the same everywhere; hate is the same. It's only the way of speaking it that's different in each culture. Unfortunately, politics - politics everywhere in the world - has made it so the emphasis is on the differences. [Politicians] gain by making people everywhere in the world fear each other."
Asked what he thought when Trump proposed a Muslim ban during his campaign, Farhadi added: "It seemed to me at that time that extremists everywhere in the world are the same. I was very surprised by this sentence. I feel that this creates fear in the people of America, and I'm very sorry about it."
This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.