(2016, Asghar Farhadi)
[4.5 out of 5 stars]
Subtitles always trouble me. That is because translation is interpretation and with it comes compromise. As a bilingual, (fluent in Tagalog) I've seen subtitled Filipino films that don't convey exactly what the dialogue means. Mostly, it's due to the vast number of words or phrases that are not translatable to English. They simply have no equivalence or are shorthand to ideas and concepts that are too complex to communicate outside of its context in the English language and in Western culture.
That's why when I watch a subtitled film and a line of dialogue that doesn't quite make sense, I assume that I am lost in translation. That gap doesn't only exist in language but also in action and cultural specifics. For example, in THE SALESMAN, there is a long, gruelling scene where a character confronts another man after figuring out who he really is. He insists on having the other confess for something he did, and to do so in front of his family. The other man refuses, even begs the other to give it up. The tension in this scene is so high and the stakes are even higher. Both men have crossed a line but Farhadi, with his empathic writing and acute direction, leaves his audience in the grey and inhibits quick judgment. Any feelings we may have about a character is conjecture. Farhadi leaves details out so that we are deeply suspicious of our assumptions and conclusions. There’s always an implication that people just don't do things for no reason, or because they are just bad people. Wicked people don’t exist in Farhadi’s movies. It is always much more complicated than what it seems.
While researching this film, I came across a term: aberu. It's a Persian concept that may help in understanding why the aforementioned character did what he did and why the one who refused to confess made it seem like a life-and-death situation. Like most culturally-specific terms, it has a long history and an even longer definition. I liken it to a similar concept that I'm personally familiar with and is intrinsic in Filipino psychology: the concept of hiya. In Filipino, this means shame, shyness, dignity and sense of propriety while also linking to notions of maintaining honour in one's family and in upholding pakikisama which means avoiding confrontation and maintaining smooth interpersonal relations. It can mean variations or combinations of the above. This is a single concept that encompasses an entire nation's perception of the world while influencing their behaviour. Looking back at certain behaviours I exhibit in given situations - like preferring to not say anything as to avoid a conflict - or experiencing hiya when voicing a strong opinion. It explains certain behaviours that might seem odd for those looking in while feeling completely normal to me.
Aberu is only similar to hiya in some aspects. To break down its etymology in the simplest way: the ab refers to 'water' and ru refers to 'face' or the 'outer appearance'. It literally means, 'the water of the face'. Magdalena Zaborowska (from the quote above) is a lecturer from the Department of Iranian Studies at the University of Warsaw and she proposes a definition of aberu by equating it to a veil covering a human face. A thing that protects a person's character and dignity, especially in the eyes of others. It is also something that is inherent but something one can lose possession of and Iranians would regard it as something to preserve and protect, next to their own lives.
The film opens with a literal rumble. The apartment complex in Tehran where husband and wife Rana and Emad live is crumbling. Like coming straight out of a disaster film and recalling recent Iranian horror film UNDER THE SHADOW, the walls around them start to fracture and the residents evacuate in panic. The camera pans down from the cracking glass window and shows a bulldozer knocking down the land next door and disturbing the foundations of the building. This bulldozer is an embodiment of the institutions that reign over the lives of Iranians, predominantly its repressive government, strict religion and, more directly, the city itself and its rapid growth. These institutions govern the everyday lives of the people we are about to watch. Their presence is felt in every situation. Even in their most private and domestic lives, the institutions will infiltrate. When they come in force, the people flee.
And so the couple move to another flat. After settling in, they discover that the previous tenant was a prostitute and, according to the neighbours, had all kinds of men visit the apartment She has left some of her belongings behind in a locked room while waiting to sign a new lease. She insists on keeping these things private but when she fails to collect them, Rana and Emad are forced to break into the room. Though we never see or hear this woman, she is given the consideration of personhood through the remnants of her self and her life left inside that room - from her children’s drawings on the walls to a little black dress in her wardrobe. Two characters look upon the garment with discomfort and cast each other a knowing glance. The woman may not be there but her aberu is lost.
Rana is left alone in the house one night and the buzzer rings. Thinking it’s her husband she buzzes in and unlocks the front door. The camera holds the shot of the door left ajar, a moment of terrifying realisation that something awful is about to occur. What happens next is never shown to us. We only see the aftermath: Rana in the hospital with a bloodied head. Everyone is sure the person who assaulted her was a client of the previous tenant. The omission of the incident is a Farhadian touch that leaves the viewer scrambling for bits of information. The truth is a torn-up, scrambled mess, glimpsed only by implied dialogue and nuances in the acting.
Emad loses his aberu following his wife's attack. This may be his failure to keep his wife safe from the perpetrator and also, the fact that this was witnessed by their neighbours (they were the ones who heard her screaming and found her unconscious body). From my understanding, aberu can only be lost when there are witnesses. There is also an implication that something else may have happened to Rana apart from her injury. The film remains vague about this. The movie then follows Emad in search for the perpetrator. I perceived his action initially as a form of revenge. But it was also for his aberu.
The final act, set inside Rana and Emad's old, empty and crumbling apartment, is a confrontation about aberu. It is a tense tete-a-tete about dignity and shame. About forgiveness and retribution. About empathy and pride. Like aberu, it all these things at once.
It’s the reason why I love cinema. It articulates without solely relying on words. Like the terms aberu and hiya they articulate encompassing feelings, those obscure emotions we feel but some languages and cultures have no words for. It does this by doing away with singularity but by emphasising multiplicity, and messiness. Films achieve this by its structure. An amalgamation of spoken words, written words, images, light, movement, sound, music, framing, editing, montage and, in the hands of a master filmmaker like Farhadi, by presenting situations and relationships in entanglement. As viewers, we try to make sense of this by attempting to detangle what we see, only to get caught into it ourselves.
I was left with so many questions and nagging, unresolved feelings after the film. Once I read about aberu I came closer to understanding the motivations of and empathising with the people in the film. Losing one's water on their face, or in other words, to lose their dignity in such a public and humiliating way is the same, if not worse, than death.