Review: Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman”
Asghar Farhadi (director and writer)
Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi (cast)
August 31, 2016 (Iran), November 2, 2016 (France)
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has been making headlines for years in the film world, creating award-winning film after award-winning film and even winning both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for his 2011 film, A Separation. His newest film, The Salesman, was guaranteed to make a splash — and it did. Lines at film festivals wound around the block, and to no one’s surprise, The Salesman was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture. But Farhadi was in the papers for a very different reason this past week: after the US President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning Iranians from entering the country, Farhadi was effectively barred from attending the Academy Awards. The controversy has drummed up new interest in The Salesman, and this film is well worth the interest. The film is complex and intelligent, with a mystery whose perpetrator is, in the end, far less important than the choices the protagonists must make to catch him.
Farhadi is well-known for his depictions of realistic struggles across class divides in modern Iran. He works on a small scale, expertly crafting families and friend groups that wrestle with their private tragedies, but their interactions always speak to wider social prejudices that plague the Iranian public today. Personal cataclysms, from divorce in A Separation to the disappearance of a loved one in About Elly, splinter relationships in his films, and observations about society and humanity can be found along all the sharp edges. In The Salesman, this cataclysm is an attack. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), are forced to move into a tiny rental apartment after their home is destroyed in an earthquake. But the two of them slowly realize that the previous tenant, a woman who refuses to remove her belongings from the apartment’s storage area, didn’t always keep good company. This subtle sense of danger comes to a head when Rana is attacked during a home invasion. Her cheerful demeanor becomes subdued, fearful, and paranoid overnight, and Emad is wracked with guilt over his absence during the attack. The gossiping of their neighbors, who are concerned and judgmental in turn, provides background noise for the intensely personal struggle that Emad and Rana engage in as they try to figure out how to deal with this attack. Emad is frustrated with Rana’s refusal to go to the police, but she knows that she will be blamed for opening the door to the intruder, even though she believed the person to be her husband. Without police intervention, and desperate to find a way to deal with his feelings of frustration and protective helplessness, Emad embarks on a quest to find the attacker himself. But as his haphazard investigation develops, questions arise. Is he really doing this for Rana, or for himself? And what will he do with the attacker when he finds them?
The Salesman is a film about personal tragedy, but it is also a film about the role of machismo in Iranian society. It questions whether Emad’s vigilantism is truly justice or merely self-indulgent revenge. Though Emad claims to be doing everything he does for the sake of his wife, she repeatedly begs him to stop and instead stay with her and help her through the feelings of instability and vulnerability that she feels as a result of the attack. So is this quest of his really protecting her interests? Or is it his own feelings of vulnerability that he’s trying to sate by finding the culprit? Is it his own feelings of helplessness, born out of an inability to protect his wife, that drive his actions? What does it truly mean to be a strong man and a good husband? These themes are mirrored in the namesake play that Emad and Rana are acting in throughout the course of the movie, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Emad plays conflicted blowhard, Willy Loman, a man who struggles with concepts of strength, “winning,” and how to properly head his family. Rana plays Willy’s always supportive but often disappointed wife, Linda. Those roles are mirrored and complicated in the relationship between Emad and Rana, and though at the beginning of the film, Emad is a mild-mannered schoolteacher who seems to have nothing in common with Willy Loman, by the end the parallels become uncomfortably clear.
While some detective stories are fast-paced and action-packed, The Salesman is not one of them. Farhadi instead presents the audience with a slow burn. A sense of looming dread starts to build as viewers learn about the complicated human relationships that drive this story, and when events start to spiral out of control in the last act of the movie, those same relationships provide an explosive finish. The story is as well-written and well-acted as one might expect from one of Farhadi’s films, if perhaps a bit less subtle in its messages than A Separation. Those messages are more relevant than ever as we contemplate the ramifications of the ban that is preventing Farhadi from entering the United States. What are the dangers of a tough guy attitude, and who are the innocent victims of revenge? What does it mean to protect your family, your wife, or your nation? To provide for them? Is it possible to do these things and still keep them emotionally, intellectually, and physically whole?
After the executive order was signed, Asghar Farhadi made an eloquent statement as to why he would not be attending the Academy Awards even if an exception was made for his entry. Though the statement should be read in full, one sentence stands out as exceptional: “Instilling fear in the people is an important tool used to justify extremist and fanatic behavior by narrow-minded individuals.” Farhadi is right; fear is a potent ingredient in the recipe for violence and unforgivable actions. What things fear can make us do, whether it is fear for our lives, our loved ones, or our social standing, are presented starkly in The Salesman. It is a story of one man, but also of many. As the headlines about Asghar Farhadi shift from his genius to his victimhood, it is becoming clear that is also a story of nations.