The Salesman, A Film by Asghar Farhadi
I’m not sure if 2016 was unusual in this regard, but it seemed that filmmakers in the past year were drawing upon some collective unconscious reservoir. Two of the year’s most accomplished dramas (Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea) depicted extremely laconic protagonists, and used that same characteristic as part of the actual storytelling. Moonlight also dealt with the construction of identity, paying particular attention to how popular perception directs the construction of black male identity, a subject in part also taken up by the documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Isabel Huppert played variations of the same character in the thriller Elle and the more philosophically sedate Things to Come.
And now arrives The Salesman, an Iranian film seemingly in conversation with the aforementioned Elle. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, and winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, The Salesman, much like Elle, considers a moment of random sexual violence and its impact on the victim and the people around them.
Emad (a magnetic Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (defiant and vulnerable Taraneh Alidoosti) are a childless, but still-young middle-class couple living in Tehran. The first time we meet them, they’re evacuating their high-rise apartment because the building has become dangerously unstable and threatens to collapse. Rana and Emad belong to a theatre troupe (current production: Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman). They play the leads, Willy and Linda Loman. Luckily, a fellow actor owns an empty apartment and offers to let them live in it for almost nothing. To Rana and Emad, after the disaster they barely escaped, the unit — two bedrooms on the top floor — seems perfect.
The apartment’s previous tenant was a single woman with a child, but also “a lady of the evening.” That phrase is appropriate: in the film’s circumspect language around sexual matters, the neighbors only ever describe her as having many acquaintances. Her presence haunts the place. Her child’s crayon drawings decorate the walls and she has left behind most of her clothes and furniture. Attempts to have her retrieve the stuff are fruitless.
One evening, Rana goes home from a performance before Emad. (He remains at the theatre to meet with government censors.) Someone rings the building’s street buzzer. Rana, believing it’s Emad, lets the person in and leaves her front door open before stepping into the shower. In the next scene, Emad returns home to find bloody footprints on the stairs and the shower stall covered in blood. We then cut to the hospital where a neighbor has taken Rana. She has suffered a horrible scalp wound and says a man attacked her. There’s the also implication she was sexually assaulted.
Here The Salesman slowly and skillfully transforms from a neo-realist drama into a subtle tale of wounded masculinity and the sourness of revenge. Emad needs justice for Rana and for himself. It is wonderful to watch Emad, a popular high school teacher, a man who risked his life to help a neighbor out of their crumbing building, become a different person — darker, more driven.
After the incident, Rana retreats into her clothing. Her sleeves come down and she fixes her hijab tightly about her head, her expressive face nearly swallowed by the cloth. She becomes afraid to shower in her home even when Emad is present. She can’t stand to be alone, yet just as often pushes Emad away if he gets too close or presses her for details of the assault.
The tension between the pair becomes the film’s other beating heart. Emad urges Rana to talk to the police. She refuses. She’s not reliving the experience, protesting that all her wounds are visible. Her hesitation arouses Emad’s suspicion, but his often callous interrogation makes us wonder: Is he concerned for his wife or judging how seriously his manhood was violated?
It’s a testament to Farhadi’s skill as a storyteller that he keeps shifting our sympathies. In the best traditions of the thriller, we get caught up in Emad’s quest for revenge despite what it does to his soul. We recognize the wisdom in Rana’s pleas that they move on; that Emad not pursue his vendetta. And surprisingly, during the film’s climactic moment, we even side with the issue’s third party.
So what’s with Death of Salesman in all this? Well, there’s the way it contributes to the film’s devastating end scene. I can also suggest that we’re meant to consider how the Lomans’ marriage harbored many unspoken grievances. Are Emad and Rana bound for the same fate? Or maybe Farhadi means to say Emad’s pursuit of revenge is much like Willy’s fruitless grasping after success. We can only guess. Like all good art — or in the case of The Salesman, great art — Farhadi poses questions but refuses to answer them.