by Rebecca M. Alvin
At this year’s Oscars, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi sent two prominent Iranian-Americans ( Anousheh Ansari and Firouz Naderi) to accept the Best Foreign-Language Picture award for his latest film The Salesman on his behalf, along with an acceptance speech that explained his absence as a move of solidarity with the millions of people barred from entering the United States due to President Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban. It brought a great deal of attention to this film, (although Farhadi’s wildly successful A Separation, which won the Academy Award in 2012, had already garnered him an art house following in the U.S. long before the travel ban). But what about the film itself?
The Salesman centers on a married couple, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini), who have recently had to move into a new apartment when their old building became structurally unstable. In a pinch, the couple rely on their friend Babak (Babak Karimi) who has an apartment they can stay in, although the previous occupant has not yet moved out her things. They agree, thinking it will only be a few days before she comes to get her stuff, but she never arrives. Amid the discomfort of having this woman’s personal things clogging up their apartment, due to a case of mistaken identity, Rana is victimized by a stranger, sending Emad into a crisis of masculinity that speaks volumes about gender, romantic love, and troubling realities about contemporary marriage, with its deep-seated roots privileging male ownership over true romantic partnership.
For western audiences, Americans in particular, the fact that Rana and Emad are actors working on a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman may be distracting. Any connections between Miller’s play and Farhadi’s film are fairly thin, and we are better served by resisting the urge to search for direct comparisons. The fact that these artists are trying to do a production of the play in Iran does have some significance, however, as it also offers a subtle critique of censorship as in one moment where a cast member can’t resist laughing during a rehearsal because a character says she can’t go out because she is “nearly naked,” when in fact the actress is fully dressed with a raincoat on.
Farhadi’s film is not perfect, but it is extremely well constructed and thought-provoking. To begin with, as in his previous films, the acting is magnificent, walking the line of subtle and broad human emotions. Hosseini is understated in his portrayal of a man unraveling as he ruminates on his wife’s trauma, while Alidoosti is equally careful to show the devastation and anxiety Rana feels without veering into melodrama. The supporting cast is natural, matching the handheld, mobile camera style and unobtrusive editing to bring us into the story organically.
But more impressive is the way in which the story unfolds in The Salesman. This is in part due to the particularities of Iranian cinema—which is not allowed to show all (working to the film’s benefit in this case), but also to Farhadi’s usual approach to storytelling. For example, the crime at the center of this drama is never explicitly detailed. Working on assumptions based equally on what is said and what is left unsaid, we piece together an idea of what happened that shifts as the story unfolds. At the same time, Emad becomes obsessed with unspoken possibilities that challenge his sense of himself as Rana’s husband and as a man. As he grapples with this, much is revealed to us about the nature of their relationship and what Rana’s victimization means to him, apart from what it means for her. In this regard it is the antithesis of European and American cinema in which such subtlety is often hard to master with the expectation of more details for the audience at play.
The Salesman is rather quiet in its building tension until the climax, and yet all along it is that very quietness that is so engrossing as we work with the codes of Iranian cinema and our own much broader understanding of marriage, love, and mercy.