ASGHAR FARHADI’S THE SALESMAN is the director’s latest, most excruciating dissection of contemporary Iran. As in his other films, Farhadi treats social conditions, and the urban blight and political corruption they imply, almost tangentially. They are neither ignored nor his primary focus, and they are not the target of the characters’ or the viewers’ animus. For a lesser director, the catastrophic early scene in which an apartment building almost collapses, forcing its tenants to seek temporary quarters elsewhere, would have been a sufficient cause for the events that follow. But Farhadi’s method is more psychologically astute and essential to his aesthetic; he is more interested in the ambiguities and the nuances of human drama, in how people deal with domestic and personal crises generated by external circumstances. And so we follow Emad and Rana, a young married couple as they search for a place to live while trying to maintain their lives. Emad is a high school literature teacher, and both he and Rana perform in local theater––currently a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
As if the crumbling walls in their apartment building were a foreshadowing of worse to come, a more personal catastrophe exposes cracks of another sort. As in Farhadi’s A Separation (2011), a haphazard event provokes ever-widening consequences. Coincidences, nagging suspicions, half-truths, and unnerving disclosures accumulate while the catalytic incident that prompted them occurs off-screen and remains ambiguous. Though clearly a byproduct of the couple’s forced move, this event produces even worse consequences. Unknown to them, the woman leasing a room in their temporary digs has frequent male visitors. One day, Rana, about to take a bath and thinking her husband is on his way up the stairs, leaves the door to the apartment ajar. We learn after the fact that a stranger entered the apartment and either molested or threatened to molest her, causing her to fall unconscious in the bathtub. Embarrassed to face interrogations, Rana refuses to speak to the police and can barely confide in her husband. More than one character agrees that police intervention would be pointless and would only expose her to shame and unwarranted accusations—an allusion to how ingrained social attitudes determine action, but suggested here without undue stress. Because Rana can neither be left alone nor continue rehearsing the play, tensions between husband and wife grow.
While Farhadi’s characters are embedded in a specific social context, their appeal and their situations are not circumscribed by cultural conditions. In The Salesman, this reach toward universality is reflected by the parallel the film draws between the unsettling event that changes the characters’ lives and the tragic fate of Willy Loman, the hapless everyman of Miller’s play. But while the latter places the fate of its protagonist within a context of changing times, Farhadi’s film conveys that there are neither easy answers nor easy solutions to the messiness of life, and one-dimensional characters, whether heroes or villains, are lame efforts to suggest otherwise.
In contrast to the inevitable denouement of the well-structured tragedy, Farhadi takes us toward an unexpected turn of events that precludes catharsis. Because his wife refuses to talk to the police, Emad, unable to contain his fury, seeks satisfaction himself. He is assisted in this quest when he happens upon the cellphone, keys, and money left behind by the stranger in his desperate flight out of the apartment. In tracking down the perpetrator, he embarks on a path that exposes his own flaws and patriarchal tendencies, at odds with the protagonist we first encounter as a gifted artist, loving husband, and dedicated teacher. His search leads both to unexpected revelations and a 180-degree turn in the thrust of the narrative and our understanding of its characters—not to be disclosed here, and no doubt the reason Farhadi won the award for best screenplay at Cannes.
It is a mistake to dismiss Farhadi’s narrative strategies as contrived, as some critics have. To do so underestimates the way his method generates close examination of the contradictions and subtleties of human behavior. His strongest asset as a director is his unbounded fascination with and compassion for the frailties of personality. What happens to his characters is as much a result of moral weakness as it is of accident and social conditions. Along with that, of course, is his unfailing talent for wresting moving, fine-tuned performances from his actors. Most outstanding among them are Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti as Emad and Rana and Farid Sajadhosseini as the intruding stranger.
The Salesman opens in select theaters on Friday, January 27.