The Salesman movie director: Asghar Farhadi
The Salesman movie cast: Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini, Babak Karimi
The Salesman movie rating: 4.5
At first glance, Emad Etesami seems far removed from Willy Loman, the titular lead of Death of a Salesman, that he plays in this story-within-a-story film. Emad is well-liked, well-loved, and seems moderately successful in both his ventures as a teacher at a school and in the play that he leads.
And yet, could Emad carry as many illusions about himself as Willy?
In this delicately crafted story of life, marriage, everyday violence — and kindness — writer-director Asghar Farhadi proves once again that there are few filmmakers like him in turning the camera inwards.
Here, we first meet Emad (Hosseini) and his lovely and loved wife Rana (Alidoosti) on the set of the play, where she is enacting Willy’s life, Linda. Next, we see them at their home, which they have been told to evacuate as the building is collapsing. This panning from a set being assembled and a home being dissembled is, of course, calculated. But the crack in the kitchen window and a Rana quietly gathering her things below it, is just the first tool Farhadi deploys to build a gathering storm.
The second device, again beautifully inserted and underplayed, comes in the form of their new home. The tenant who occupied it before them has left behind some of her stuff, in a locked room. They force it open, to Emad’s discomfort, to find lots of clothes and a child’s scribbled drawings. The friend, Babak (Karimi), who has got them this new home is cagey about the occupant.
Still, nothing prepares us for the inexplicable violence that will upend Emad and Rana’s lives. One night Rana has returned before Emad from the rehearsals, and towards midnight, as she has scrubbed the house clean, and gone in for a shower, someone rings the door. She imagines it is Emad, and lets the person in, and goes back into the shower. Later, she is found naked and covered in blood. The rest of the film hangs on what happened, or not, to her, and what it does to both Rana and Emad.
Immediately the neighbourhood reveals that the previous tenant was a woman “with a lot of male guests”, and the intruder could have been one of her clients. We have just had a scene in the play of Willy’s son Biff discovering the prostitute his father frequents, which was a pivotal moment in Biff’s life. This prostitute in the play is portrayed by a divorcee who brings her son to the sets and believes, perhaps not wrongly, that she is being judged by the role she is doing.
There is a contrived use of a pick-up truck left behind by the attacker that jars. But one can’t hold that grudge for too long, as the film unfolds.
Emad’s carefully built image of a sensitive, and by all accounts liberal, husband, who has also been encouraging his students to open their minds, crumbles under the weight of the incident with Rana. Here, as in his A Separation, Farhadi portrays how societies come to define themselves in terms of a woman’s honour, and the things that can be done in its name. While that film was also an observation on class differences, The Salesman restricts its critical gaze largely to marriages, and not just Emad and Rana’s, as another, heartbreakingly comes under strain due to it (while they are all good here, a shout out to the brilliant, brilliant Farid Sajjadi Hosseini). In this focus on couples, the film gives us a rare patient glimpse of a love slipping away even as he, she, us pine.
It also brings into brilliant view the fact that whether it is in Tehran where Censors may drop in to “chop three scenes still considered objectionable”, or in Arthur Miller’s Brooklyn, yet again chasing “the American dream” — and now a travel ban away — stories about people are not too dissimilar.
We may find another parallel, of course. While they are discussing a story, a student of Emad asks him, “How can man become a cow?” Replies he: “Gradually.”