Asghar Farhadi traffics in impossible situations, ones that could happen to anyone. His 2011 film, A Separation, won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but its nomination for Best Original Screenplay was far more salient. His films are not constructed in any particularly complex way. Rather Farhadi chooses societal issues – specifically, those of Iran – that are so damn complicated. He begins with a complex situation and then twists the knife until you can barely stand it. His newest film, The Salesman, is no exception.
Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are a young married couple who are playing the leads in a community production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. They are of the lower-middle class, living in the sort of conditions that force them to seek temporary housing when a construction accident damages the foundation of their apartment building.
Emad is the sole breadwinner as a literature teacher, so they seize the opportunity to move into an apartment that was hastily vacated by a woman who leads a “wild lifestyle” (polite code for sex work). One evening, Rana buzzes in someone whom she believes to be Emad returning from work, and she steps into the shower. Emad comes home to find blood in the bathroom and the outdoor stairs: Rana has been hit in the head and was found by the neighbors, who took her to the hospital.
Nothing feels so personal as to have your home invaded. For a proud man like Emad, having his wife assaulted (just physically, but he suspects sexually, too) is too much to take, so he launches into an amateur investigation that begins to consume him. Rana is deeply shaken by the incident and would prefer simply to move on. The fallout from the attack seeps into the rest of their lives, including their obligations to the stage, where their profound grief finds inopportune release.
Farhadi is too restrained a director to allow his film to turn into Death Wish. Although the word “revenge” is mentioned at one point, Emad is less on the warpath than he is confounded by the grave offense he feels. He lashes out at Rana, refusing to get out of his own head and comfort his wife in their shared trauma. Emad’s behavior reflects how most ordinary people would act in his situation: flailing mostly aimlessly, grasping at straws for some kind of resolution.
The film eventually takes on a halting procedural structure, one that is engendered by the accidental clues left behind by the bumbling perpetrator. Farhadi never loses sight of the spousal relationship at the center of the film, though, as we watch it chip away each time Emad pursues a gloomy lead. The closest parallel between the film and the play-within-the-film is the impotent masculinity felt by their respective protagonists. Both Emad and Willy Loman feel an obsessive need to provide for and protect their families, even as they destroy them from within.
It is an unhappy film, leavened only occasionally by the presence of a sweet little boy who acts as a specter of the larger family the couple could have if they only focused on their marriage. Farhadi challenges us to be better people than Emad, to understand that some things just can’t be fixed, which is a bitter pill to swallow. The movie’s resolution takes us down the stony end in a grueling yet believable way. One can only hope that this crisis would not happen to us. The Salesman shows that we are all vulnerable to tragedy, and that it is incumbent upon us to respond as best as we can. Sometimes, though, that is just too much to ask.
Drama | Amazon Studios