Iranian director Asghar Farhadi is a master of his craft, despite the constraints put on him by his government. But rather than seek out the cracks, pushing at the boundaries and criticizing them as Jafar Panahi does, Farhadi works within them to craft dramas that aren’t much different from what an American or European director of his caliber might. And with one Academy Award already under his belt for A Separation, he’s a serious contender to win a second for The Salesman.
The obvious reference for the title is Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman. Rana and Emad (Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini) are starring in a production of the play when they find themselves looking for a new apartment. Construction next to their building has rendered it structurally unsound, forcing an evacuation of their now literally broken home.
Their friend and fellow cast-member Babak (Babak Karimi) comes to the rescue with an apartment he was renting to a woman who recently vacated, though she’s left all her stuff there until she can find a new place. But shortly after moving in, another shock. As Rana prepares to take a shower, she hears the intercom buzz. Expecting Emad home soon, she hits the button and cracks the apartment door for him, stepping into the shower. By the time Emad actually arrives, he finds bloody footprints on the stairs, signs of struggle in the apartment, and Rana missing.
Thankfully, Rana isn’t dead. The neighbors heard a commotion and found her. One of the women dressed her, and they took her to the hospital to treat a nasty head wound. It’s not long before the couple start hearing the rumors about the previous tenant. “She had a lot of acquaintances,” they say, carefully talking around the suggestion that she was a prostitute. Unspoken but understood is the question of why Rana would leave the apartment open while doing something as intimate as showering.
Emad is, naturally, incensed. He looks for any clue he can find; there’s a wad of cash on a shelf in the living room, a pair of socks on the floor, and a set of keys and a phone between the cushions of a chair. The phone has already been disconnected, but the keys lead him to a pickup truck parked outside, which he moves in the hopes of at least flushing out the attacker, if not using it as evidence for the police.
But Rana doesn’t want to go to the police. Shame would be understandable enough in a western setting, but it’s doubly a factor in Tehran. She doesn’t want to have to deal with the pickup. She wants to go on with the play, but she freezes up when she sees someone in the audience who reminds her of her attacker. Everything is tainted, and how could Babak not tell them about the previous tenant before they moved in?
The film plays out its tension at a slow boil. Dense and layered, and ironic down to the title, echoing both itself and Miller’s play, Farhadi elicits powerful performances from his leads, as usual. Both Alidoosti and Hosseini are veterans of his films, and they were even paired up in About Elly. They each have a wide emotional range here; Rana goes from hurt and shame to a survivor’s strength, while Emad’s anger fades into despair over his inability to protect his wife, and then a mean, vindictive streak when he senses a chance for vengeance. To this Salesman, attention must be paid.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.