Iranian film The Salesman

Forget La La Land – best foreign language Oscar nominees show the true diversity of cinema

The Conversation|Pegah Shahbaz, Anders Marklund, Kim Toft Hansen, Lothar Mikos & Marc Tabani: A marriage on the rocks in Iran, a prankster German father and a grumpy old Swede. Landmines in Denmark and a love story in Vanuatu. These stories are all vying for the same prize: that of Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards.

Maren Ade’s tragi-comedy Toni Erdmann is favourite to take home the Oscar on February 26, but the whole field demonstrates the diversity of cinema outside the Hollywood bubble.

To explain what’s on offer in 2017, The Conversation asked scholars from around the world to write about why these films matter, both at home and on cinema’s biggest stage.

The Salesman: Iran

Asghar Farhadi will represent Iranian cinema at the Oscars again, with his 2015 picture, The Salesman. The film is an exposé of a subtle cultural issue in Iran: how to perceive violence and react to an act of abuse in a family relationship, particularly in a male-dominated society.

The story deals with a young artist couple, Rana and ’Emad (played by Taraneh Alidousti and Shahab Hosseini), who are putting on a production of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. Their own conjugal life is shaken when Rana is attacked by a stranger in her home. Farhadi uses this scenario to raise the question of how we behave in moments of crisis.

Asghar Farhadi takes on an American classic in The Salesman. Memento Films Distribution

Farhadi tackles this contentious cultural issue in a society of traditional values, where women’s “honour” is defined by their sexuality and men’s is defined by the control they exert over that sexuality. The audience observes ’Emad’s inner struggle with doubt, resentment and self-control in order to reconcile cultural norms of revenge and forgiveness. Rana’s defenceless conduct evokes an image of a passive victim avoiding conflicts out of terror.

The narrative is full of suspense and anxiety, as we have seen in Farhadi’s previous films The Past (2013), A Separation (2011) and About Elly (2009). Along with his realistic narrative style, Farhadi reveals his remarkable expertise in documenting the rise of confrontation and conflict, leading his characters to make fundamental decisions about their lives.

After The Saleman’s success at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won two awards for best film script and best male actor, the cast is looking forward to the results of the Oscars. As an act of protest against US President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban, Farhadi and his cast have announced that they won’t be present on the red carpet this year.

A Man Called Ove: Sweden

Ove lives alone, very alone, in a semi-detached home in a small-scale Swedish suburb. “Misery hates company”, the US tagline says, and the only company Ove longs for is that of his wife who has died. When the film begins, he is about to commit suicide, hoping to join her in heaven.

Such a beginning may sound particularly Swedish, well in line with an Ingmar Bergman film or a Lars Norén play. But Man Called Ove is different. You don’t attract the largest audience to a Swedish film in years if you don’t offer a somewhat more comforting vision of life.

Odd couple: Bahar Pars and Rolf Lassgård in A Man Called Ove. Nordisk Films

Ove’s unfolding story, told in an emotional and warmly comic way, values the breaking down of barriers; barriers between individuals such as those between the grumpy old Ove himself and his more normal neighbours, but also barriers of class, ethnicity, fear and prejudices, hindering people from joining a supportive community.

One such modern barrier is that Bahar Pars, the film’s Swedish Iranian-born lead actress, could have been kept away from the Oscar award ceremony amid the uncertainty over US President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

Everybody ask me about the oscars. I don’t know. Being in America is not that appealing to me right now.