Cast: Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Farid Sajjadi, Babak Karimi
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
More than any other working filmmaker, international or otherwise, Asghar Farhadi has perfected the art of the domestic melodrama. Naturally, that description draws very particular reference points; (sensational plotting, big emotions, stereotypical characters), which simply doesn't apply to the Farhadi brand. This is because his films couch their blunt symbolism and emotional rawness under the template of geographical, socioeconomic, and political specificity, coming off much subtler and more refined than the usual garden variety melodrama.
In pictures like A Separation, The Past, and especially About Elly, Farhadi harnesses the domestic, relational, and familial aspects in order to examine Iran's governmental regime in a way which is linked to his character's emotional states. Using confined spaces, roving hand-held camerawork, and tight editing, Farhadi is a master of aesthetic and thematic geometry; utilizing setting and location as a means for commenting on the fear, paranoia, and even joy of individuals moving around their milieu; be that a crumbling apartment complex or a burecratic office building.
In The Salesman, Farhadi doubles down on the symbolic nature of his film's title, drawing not only on Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, but also the domestic melodrama and procedural thriller. The results are perhaps the most 'Farhadian" Farhadi effort yet, a complicated (though never convoluted) series of simple mistakes and thoughtless gestures which eventually splinter away into a horrible event. If one sees the opening scene, featuring Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) fleeing their collapsing apartment simply as a plot device, then one has never seen a Farhadi film. The cracks in the building's windows are symbolic, of course, as is the oppressive sight of a bulldozer outside, but Farhadi never allows us to be preoccupied with such foreshadowing.
In this case, Emad and Rana's efforts to find a new place while also juggling rehearsals for a production of Death of a Salesman is dramatically compelling on its own, but things get more complicated after a friend, Babak (Babak Karimi) offers them a vacant apartment without telling them a crucial bit of information. As it turns out, the former tenant was a woman with a promiscuous streak who drew a throng of would-be male suitors to the premises, which eventually leads to Rana either being attacked or startled by a stranger while taking a shower. Wisely, Farhadi keeps the incident offscreen, and since Rana's recollections are fuzzy (she fell and hit her head during the encounter), Emad is left to assume the attacker was looking for the previous tenant.
During its first half, The Salesman moves briskly and dispenses information in carefully modulated doses. There are no big emotional scenes, violent exchanges (aside from the attack, which again, is never shown), or manipulative filmic tricks going on here. Instead, the film's tensions arise out of character's desire to feel safe, both physically and emotionally, inside their own home. To this end, Hosseini and Alidoosti deliver subtly moving and complex performances as two people caught in the maelstrom, and never once do they strike a false note. During the film's second half, the pacing becomes more languid; shape-shifting from melodrama into a procedural-like mystery where Emad unearths pieces to the puzzle regarding his wife's attack. Had the focus only been on how this incident affected the male character, the narrative would certainly lack complexity, but equal time is also given to Rana's shell-shocked emotional state post-attack. However, Farhadi doesn't stop there. In a more routine mystery drama, the stranger entering the bathroom would signal a malicious force of evil, but the film's eventual reveal of the attacker changes our preconceptions, adding a healthy dose of moral ambiguity to the proceedings. Farhadi's undeniable humanism makes it impossible for him to paint the perpetrator as a pure villain, giving the film's third act a tragic power which holds up a mirror to our own sense of entitled moral hypocrisy.
Initially, paralleling the domestic violation with Death of a Salesman feels amorphous at best. The victims in Miller's play were crushed by capitalism, with the self-pitying Willy Loman character representing a very specific American tragic hero. A link can be made to Iran's crippling economy, of course, but there's also the argument that the Willy Loman stand-in here isn't the proactive Emad (who actually plays Loman in the Iranian stage play version), but actually, the attacker, who is less a sexual deviant than a pathetic figure brought down by his own temptations. By setting his film's climax in the now dilapidated former apartment the couple fled from during the opening moments, Farhadi brilliantly allows the action to unfold as a heightened stage play. The ways in which Emad, Rana, the perpetrator, and even his family members go through a series of emotionally charged conversations while also dealing with grave physical danger, is executed with such clarity of vision that when it's finally over, the effect is both devastating as well as profoundly moving.
Rana's final act of kindness may infuriate those longing for a simpler brand of vigilante justice, but her empathy corresponds to how Farhadi sees his characters, and by extension, all of us. Ultimately, the film seems to suggest a wiser, more compassionate way of dealing with life's hardships, and yet, there's still something audacious about Farhadi's way of arriving at this fundamental truth. If movies are meant to be a window into such basic morality rather than simply an excuse for escapism (though both can coexist), then The Salesman is a triumph of humanism which earns its sentiments by actually engaging with the ugliness and complication of human nature rather than running away from it.