In the opening of Asghar Farhadi’s seventh feature film, The Salesman, Emad (Shahab Hosseini, who won the Best Actor award for his role here at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are violently shaken from their apartment home. Confused and scared, they quickly join their neighbors in fleeing from their multi-level housing unit.
Deemed structurally unsound, the ruptured foundations of their building present a literal and figurative metaphor that will haunt them for the remainder of the film. In some cases, this narrative device would come off as obvious or stilted. In the capable hands of Farhadi, it adds a magnificent gravitas to his already precise manner of storytelling.
As he did in A Separation (2011) and The Past (2013), The Salesman takes a simple disturbance between a couple in various stages of their relationship (or post relationship) and spins it into a dizzying examination of not only their interaction but their place in Iranian society. Divorce proceedings, hidden secrets, missing friends as in About Elly (2009), all are fodder for his films that play out like internalized action films.
And the internalization begins fairly quickly in The Salesman when, seeking a quick solution to their housing problem, Emad and Rana rent an apartment from a friend and move in even though the previous tenant’s belongings are still shuffled around the home. It’s as if they’ve entered the play of another’s life, another fitting metaphor since Rana and Emad co-star in a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which Farhadi uses as a backbone for a majority of his film. The neighbors murmur about the past tenant’s unusual lifestyle. The cellphone conversations between the landlord/friend (Babak Karimi) and the tenant are cryptic. Uncomfortable with the whole scenario but having little choice, Emad and Rana go ahead with their living conditions.
It’s a decision that, like so many in Farhadi’s universe, will eventually have dire consequences. At home alone one night, the buzzer rings and Rana leaves the door open for the caller, assuming its Emad returning home late from rehearsals. She continues her routine and goes into the bathroom to finish her shower. Farhadi’s camera, set at medium height, lingers quietly on the slightly ajar door or a few beats longer than necessary, allowing for all types of portentous emotions to swirl over the viewer.
With a single cut in time, Emad returns home, finds the door open and sees evidence of blood splatters. He finds Rana at a local hospital, unable (or more likely unwilling) to divulge exactly what happened that night.
What occurs in The Salesman from that point on is so precise, intellectually thrilling and morally complex that it’s easy to understand why it’s the front runner for this year’s Academy Award for best foreign-language film.
Farhadi is a filmmaker who works incrementally, slowly revealing and uncovering layers with the utmost care. I’m sure if I’d been more educated on the vagaries of Miller’s play that I’d be more impressed by the similarities of Emad juggling both his obligations to the stage as Willy Loman and acting as independent investigator for what happened to his wife. Is there some veiled comparison about the failures of masculinity? Exactly how do the Iranian censors view this rendition of the play? In one scene, someone mentions to Emad that he must meet with them and talk about certain scenes before going on.
Regardless, The Salesman operates on a level that anyone can understand. Part revenge film and part meta-cinema about two people coping with anger and embarrassment both onscreen and off, Farhadi’s search for equivocal harmony continues. It’s simply one of the year’s very best films and deserves to be seen.
The Salesman opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, February 10, at the Angelika Film Center Plano and Landmark Magnolia.