The Salesman; Iranian with subtitles; 125 min; Rated PG-13
“The Salesman” was the winner of Best Foreign Film at the 89th Oscars. Regrettably, its Iranian director, Asghar Farhadi, who won in this category in 2012 for his film “A Separation,” was not present to receive his award. As a result of President Trump’s travel ban placed on seven nations with predominantly Muslim populations (Iran being one of them), Farhadi boycotted the ceremony (he could have attended when a federal judge lifted the ban, which is still being litigated by the White House).
Farhadi’s absence was regrettable for he is a gifted writer and director who is able to draw upon the most subtle and nuanced and exquisite aspects of life, making explicit their hidden meanings which can be astonishingly poignant and emotive.
His film “The Salesman” demonstrates both the depth and breadth of his talent.
The setting is Iran. The story opens with a young couple, Emad and Rana (Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti), hearing a groaning rumble and then their neighbors calling out that everyone must evacuate the building. Apparently there is construction near the apartment complex that is undermining its foundation.
Forced to move, a friend offers them a temporary apartment in his building. The previous tenant has moved out, though she has left behind a small room filled with her things.
Emad and Rana, we soon learn, are members of an amateur acting troop currently putting on Arthur Miller’s play, “Death of a Salesman.” Emad is a high school teacher, as well.
One evening, not long after they have moved in, Rana buzzes in someone she believes to be Emad, and leaves the front door slightly ajar for him and then goes to take a shower. Instead of Emad, a stranger enters and assaults her while she is bathing.
When Emad arrives home, he finds Rana missing but there is blood on the steps leading up to the apartment and blood in the bathroom. The next scene opens with Rana having her head and eyebrow bandaged while Emad waits just outside the emergency cubicle. He, like the audience, can only fill in the circumstances that led to Rana’s injuries. When she finally tells him what occurred, she insists that he not call the police. While her reluctance is never explicitly explained, there’s a sense that she is not only traumatized but she is filled with shame.
Suddenly their lives are transformed. Rana is distraught, fearful and vulnerable. She is afraid to be left alone. Emad, though concerned for his wife, even caring and sympathetic, is also intent on finding the man who did this. He discovers that in his rush to escape, the assailant has left behind his pickup truck on the street as well as its keys and his cellphone, which Emad finds on the living room sofa.
Emad and Rana learn from the neighbors that the woman who lived in the apartment before was apparently a prostitute, so Emad concludes that the stranger was someone who came looking for the woman, not realizing she was gone and found Rana there instead, alone and in the shower.
What takes place next evolves into a psychodrama of sorts, one in which their relationship and commitment to one another are tested. Emad is consumed by a need for revenge, unable to fully honor Rana’s wishes to lock away the awful memories. He is consumed by the idea of retribution.
What is taking place in their lives is compared and contrasted to the play they are acting in: Emad as Willy Loman and Rana portrays his wife, Linda. Of course, the play was not arbitrarily chosen, but the rationale is elusive, the overlay not readily obvious.
The last act of “The Salesman” is riveting and offers an unexpected surprise. It is impossible not to be completely captivated by what takes place. The outcome, which impacts both Emad and Rana, is open to interpretation, and the final scene shows them looking vacantly into the distance as the power of a thousand different cultural imperatives swirl around them.
This is a remarkable film, a window into Iran’s complex world of culture, societal norms and politics. It is also an intimate story, told with images and dialogue and setting forming an engaging synergism as only a beautifully crafted film can.