Like his previous two films, A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, 2011) and The Past (Le pass, 2013), Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman (Forushande) is a probing examination of interior and external conflict wrapped up in the guise of a mystery. By this point, Farhadi has established himself as a master storyteller, a filmmaker with an estimable deftness when it comes to depicting the nuances of human behavior and conveying in ways both powerful and understandable why we do sometimes inexplicable things. His characters are always a mix of the noble and the irrational, and he refuses to trade in easy answers and pat conclusions while still deriving much narrative powerful and suspense from conventional cinematic norms.
The Salesman, which takes place in Tehran, takes its title from Arthur Miller's generation-defining play Death of a Salesman (1949), a Farsi production of which is central to the film's plot. The protagonist, an actor and teacher named Emad (Shahab Hosseini), is playing the role of the doomed Willy Loman, a character he does not fully understand until much later in the film after he crosses paths with a real-life salesman, an aging, desperate man with a bad heart who may be key to a violent attack on Emad's wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who is playing the role of Loman's wife in the play.
Emad and Rana are forced to leave their apartment building in the film's opening scene when a sinkhole from a nearby construction site causes the building to crack and risk collapse. As a result, they must quickly relocate, and through a colleague they find a shabby apartment from which a woman and her young son were recently evicted, leaving many of their belongings still piled in one room. Although we never see this woman on-screen, she and the numerous men in her life become an integral part of the film's plot, especially when an unknown man enters the apartment and attacks Rana one night when she is about to get into the shower-an event that we do not see directly (like the crucial tumble down the stairs in A Separation), but rather indirectly through the emotional impact it has on Rana, who suffers from post-traumatic stress, and Emad, who becomes obsessed with finding out who the attacker was and getting some kind of revenge. When he discovers a set of keys in the apartment, which were most likely left behind by the assailant, he becomes all the more determined to enact his own justice, which leads to an unexpected confrontation that undermines virtually everything he-and we-had assumed.
And that is, of course, what Farhadi does so incredibly well. He sets up plots that are quite conventional in their emotional beats (his previous two films involved married couples who were separated and dealing with the emotional fallout of their breakup), but lead to increasing complications that call into question the assumptions made by the characters on-screen and those we make as we become involved in their plights. Emad wants vengeance-a typically masculine pursuit that rarely ends well-which forces him outward, while Rana needs him emotionally and is left wanting. Ironically, his pursuit of justice blinds him to his wife's needs, and like the massive, symbolic crack in the wall of their old apartment, their seemingly strong relationship begins to founder.
The dominant theme in The Salesman is desperation, which Farhadi borrows from Miller's play, but quickly makes his own. Shahab Hosseini, who won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance, makes Emad an appealing protagonist whose sense of anger and need for justice is understandable, although the second half of the film slowly but surely undermines that appeal as his call for justice runs headlong into the messiness of real life, where there aren't always easy rights and wrongs and even the worst actions have layers of justification. We can see and understand his frustration, his sense of emasculation in having failed to protect his wife and being unable to heal her now, and that sense of empathy holds, even as we begin to resist his actions once the reality of his situation becomes more fully known. Farhadi flips the story on us, as he leads us into what is essentially an existential trap in which we, along with Emad, are forced to confront our own desires and sense of morality.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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