The Salesman July 7, 2017
Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (2016) is broadly a revenge picture, but probe its more intricate details and you’ll find that it is also a film about the unrealistic idealism of domesticity, humiliation, the strange events that can arise in the passing of time, and the fragility of masculinity. Like many of Farhadi’s films, which often examine tense relationships, platonic or romantic, it is so psychologically taxing it sometimes resembles a thriller. There is suspense found in the neuroses of these characters, in their wretched determination to overcome what’s bothering them.
It is concerned with Emad and Rana (Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti), married theater people in the midst of rehearsal for their take on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949). By day, Emad is a drama professor bound to become a teacher many of his students will tout as their favorite of all time in adulthood; Rana is a housewife with little to do besides be alone with her thoughts. Their marriage is generally harmonious given the relative autonomy of the relationship.
But total perfection is broken in half when their living situation literally crumbles on top of them. With the stresses of rehearsal already nipping at their sides, the last thing they can handle is homelessness. With the help of their friend Babak (Babak Karimi), a fellow actor, they secure an affordable, albeit meager, apartment nearby. Things start to revert back to normal.
But the couple’s world is rocked once more when Emad returns from work and discovers his wife has been physically assaulted, her face bloodied and her psychological stability halted. After some sleuthing is it discovered that the previous tenant was a prostitute who often angered her clients – clearly, the attack was aimed at her and not the innocent Rana. Rana, shaken up as she is, would like to put it behind her. But Emad, distraught over his feeling as though he insufficiently protected his wife and by the truth that Rana’s trauma is debilitating her, is bent on finding the perpetrator and holding him responsible.
Because this is a Farhadi film, however, that revenge is clearly not going to be as clean as Beatrix Kiddo’s quest for making even. The final act, fraught with intriguing moral ambiguity, paints the film’s antagonist as a purely incidental one. He claims that he did not, in fact, assault Rana, but that in her terror she accidentally ran into the glass on the bathroom door and injured herself. He did not mean to cause harm – he simply didn’t know the prostitute who used to keep him company was no longer around. It doesn’t help that he is sickly, elderly, and has a large family who idolizes him.
In these moments, no path Emad could choose to travel appears to be the right one. He could bid farewell to this man but could still easily ruin the latter’s life by blackmailing him for what he knows. He could instigate violence to match the injuries inflicted on his wife, but that would be questionable, given that his “victim” is defenseless and tells a generally persuasive story.
What Emad chooses to do doesn’t sit well anyway, mostly because Rana discovers what her husband is up to and pleads him to stop what he’s doing and take the forgive and forget route. And that complicates things. He is seeking revenge to “right” the wrongs done to his wife, and yet his wife doesn’t want him to. So what is he trying to accomplish? Is this pleasure, catharsis?
Initially, Farhadi’s using of Death of a Salesman as a backdrop seems an odd choice – why the Iranian populace would be compelled by a sorrowful tale of the failing of the American dream isn’t obvious. But then it becomes apparent that Farhadi is using it as a device to reflect the themes explored in the film: the disaffection with one’s domestic life, the crumbling of the male ego, the feeling of failure and humiliation, the contentiousness between a husband and wife after something traumatic happens to them. The tie-ins are subtle but clever, enshrining The Salesman’s place as a summarization of Farhadi’s startling capability of rendering lived-in lives and characters too thorny to be categorized.
Deservedly, the movie won the Oscar for best foreign language film award last February, with Farhadi boycotting the ceremony as a result of President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban. Maybe Trump could learn a thing or two from The Salesman – that indulging one’s anger, one’s temporary desires in trade of a basic moral code, can only lead to destruction. The feature is a tour-de-force in storytelling and in acting; it is among 2016’s most overlooked. A-
Maral Bani Adam
2 Hrs., 5 Mins.
he Hollywood revenge drama would like you to believe that most targets of a relatively good man or woman’s vengeance are one-dimensionally evil, spewers of venom and hatred who don’t deserve their place on Earth. They serve no purpose to be anything besides nefarious: all they seem capable of doing is destroying our protagonist’s well-being and then ultimately paying the price for doing so.