Milo Garner reviews Asghar Farhadi’s Best Foreign Language Film winner at this year’s Oscars.
Asghar Farhadi’s seventh film, The Salesman, opens with an uncharacteristic bout of action. The apartment in which Emad and Rana Etesami (Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti) live is caught in what first appears to be an earthquake. Though this is later revealed to be dangerous works on a neighbouring building, the sense of unease and tension created in this startling opening does not diminish for long. Though Farhadi has spent little time on moments of action across his filmography, with key incidents often taking place off-screen, the power of these climacteric events oscillate across his scripts. And The Salesman is no different.
After finding themselves without a home, the film’s protagonists move into a flat in central Tehran. The former tenant has left some of her things behind in one of the rooms – not a serious problem, but a seed of things to come. Soon after moving in, the inciting incident of the narrative takes place: Rana, without thinking, opens the door to her flat while alone, and heads into the shower, thinking the buzzer to have been her husband. It wasn’t. We jump to Emad’s return, and the discovery of his wife gone and their bathroom bloodied; Rana is in hospital, covered in lacerations. As becomes abundantly clear, the former tenant of this apartment was a sex worker of sorts, and Emad deduces the unwelcome visitor who assaulted his wife must have been one of her former clients.
Being a film written by Farhadi, The Salesman is typically serpentine in its development, and gladly so. He manages to twist the audience’s position on the film’s characters constantly, without changing their nature as much as revealing their true selves through further information. A good case study is Emad, whose progression might be referenced in the title of the film. The clearest link the title has to the film’s content is that the protagonists are taking part in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but as A.V. Club critic Mike D’Angelo astutely points out, connexions between the film and that play are limited at best. Instead, he stresses, the use of theatre in the film is used to bring attention to ‘the roles people assign themselves in everyday life’. This is especially true of Emad. We are introduced to a pleasant man, a teacher and actor; but as he feels his position as protector of his family under threat, he changes. He assumes the role of the ultra-masculine, someone who is duty-bound to track down his wife’s assaulter, even if she would rather he didn’t. The falsehood of his position is made all the more clear by some of the supporting cast, who are far closer to the masculine ideal he seems to strive for. More and more as the plot continues, and he comes closer to his quarry, the audience become less comfortable with his ostensibly righteous mission. Part of this is due to how vague the actual assault is kept, and though it could simply be Iranian censorship (alluded to in the film, as Death of a Salesman had to be cut by four scenes), it seems more likely to be a dramatic device. While our first assumptions are typically a worst-case scenario, the more that is revealed the less likely that seems the case – in my own mind the incident fell from a violent rape to an attempted sexual assault that resulted in a fall and smashed glass. This would explain both the attacker’s cut foot and the several lacerations suffered by Rana, as well as her reluctance to bring her attacker to justice. That said, the latter might well be an attempt to evade Iran’s appalling laws surrounding rape and sexual assault (under which assaulted women can be found guilty of adultery), but if so this is not mentioned explicitly or implicitly.
The potential downplaying of an incident shrouded in mystery complicates the film’s primary ethical question, which perhaps could have been played up in contrast. This central dilemma asks whether someone should be punished for their actions if their punishment might result in damage to those around them. When, after several brilliantly-played twists by Farhadi, we eventually find the perpetrator of the film’s central crime, the villain is not as we might expect. Beyond the possibility his assault was much less than first imagined, we find a man with a long-term marriage and a family who count on him. Despite his own evil, revealing his actions might do more harm to the innocents dependent on him than do good by bringing him to justice, especially considering Rana’s wish for him to simply be let free. There is a sense that this dilemma might be tied to some of Iranian culture’s less compatible ideas on women and sexuality – the idea that the man was tempted, and so less responsible for his actions, is raised and not countered. Regardless of this, Farhadi’s central moral question is realised excellently – the final few scenes are a masterwork of tension, playing up the ethical issues both on the part of the perpetrator, and Emad’s ultra-masculine act. Even for the truly despicable characters, the script has such empathy that it is impossible to not feel the humanity in both sides of this story. On this point it doesn’t quite reach the soaring heights of Farhadi’s earlier A Seperation, but it comes close enough to make another excellent drama.
This is all supported by a typically great cast, including Farhadi regulars Hosseini and Alidoosti in the leading roles. Hosseini especially manages to trace his character’s fall into an obsessive madness especially well, never losing track of the reality inherent in the role nor chewing his scenery. It’s a subtle and restrained performance, but one ever-gripping. Alidoosti’s Rana is nearly as good, and also manages a good level of restraint in displaying her recovery from trauma. It is a shame her story arc becomes very much secondary as the film continues, especially given the general vagueness surrounding her experience and motivations, but while onscreen there is little to complain about. The cinematography differs little from Farhadi’s former films, with Hossein Jafarian returning to the crew as cinematographer, after 2006’s Fireworks Wednesday and 2009’s About Elly. This means it’s all handheld, and often quite intimate – there isn’t much spectacle, but it never feels missing. Overall, exhibiting both the multi-faceted characters and the ever-twisting narrative that Farhadi is rightfully famed for, The Salesman is another excellent addition to his filmography. While perhaps not his greatest film, it regardless stands as one of the best of 2016’s Academy year.
The Salesman is out in select cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema from March 17. See the trailer below: