The Salesman begins with what seems like an earthquake—the ground starts to shake at a comfortable-looking abode in Tehran, cracks suddenly appear in the walls, and the happily married Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) have to flee into the street. The newest film from Iran’s master of the domestic potboiler, Asghar Farhadi, is as subtly and methodically told as his other works, but to begin, he does allow himself one obvious visual metaphor. Emad and Rana’s life together is going to come apart at the scenes, seemingly out of nowhere, like a cruel act of god.
In fact, it isn’t an earthquake that troubles the couple’s home, but nearby construction. Nonetheless, they have to temporarily move to another, shabbier apartment, where the previous tenant has left many of her possessions. They’re simultaneously playing the lead roles in a local production of Death of a Salesman, that canonical work on the myth of American exceptionalism. But Farhadi is not looking to draw some obvious parallel between Arthur Miller’s play and the lives of this couple. Rather, he wants to explore the terrifying speed with which conflict can disrupt our mundane lives, and the unconscious need we possess to slip into more outsized roles. The Salesman is a typically wrenching film for Farhadi, one that morphs from a quiet family drama to a low-key tale of revenge, and is all the more impressive for how seamlessly it executes that shift.
Farhadi won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2011 for A Separation, which followed a middle-class Iranian couple’s attempt to divorce, and the various familial and courtroom troubles that then besieged them (The Salesman was similarly nominated for an Oscar this year). Farhadi’s cinematic style could kindly be described as sparing—the score is minimal, the camerawork lacking embellishment, the visuals strictly verité. When Farhadi cuts to the couple’s staging of Death of a Salesman, the exaggerated set behind them, decorated with neon signs advertising casinos and bowling, seems all the more lurid and cartoonish—a tightly restrained culture’s view of a shamefully extroverted land.
That notion of extroversion is what begins to eat away at Emad and Rana’s relationship. When rehearsing Death of a Salesman, one of the male actors can barely stay in character at the sight of a female actor in the role of Miss Forsythe, who is implied to be a prostitute. Even the very idea of an actress pretending to be such a person feels like science fiction to him, and he can’t help but laugh at it. But fiction edges into reality for Emad and Rana, who learn that their new apartment’s previous tenant was similarly scandalous. The couple’s new neighbors remember her as “a woman with a lot of acquaintances” and who lived a “wild life,” but Emad and Rana are desperate to avoid discussing the subject. Their lives seem otherwise blissful: Their relationship is happy, and Emad is a beloved teacher at a local high school.
That peace is disturbed when a client of the former tenant calls at the couple’s apartment and scuffles with Rana when he realizes she’s not who he’s looking for. This action unfolds entirely off-screen, while Rana is home alone. She can’t identify her assailant, nor does she want to address it with the police, afraid of the judgment that might follow, unfair or no. It’s an upsetting situation, but not a cataclysmic one—a crack in the wall, rather than a break in the foundation. But it’s enough to send Emad in search of retribution, a quest that will offer no help to his rattled wife (who doesn’t want the matter to spill out into the public eye), but might nonetheless satisfy his own anguish about failing to protect her.
Farhadi is the best kind of political filmmaker—one who focuses his stories on mundane family matters and believable domestic dramas, whose works build to a catastrophe by upsetting the smallest societal norms. In The Salesman, you can feel Farhadi (who wrote and directed) putting his finger on the scale ever so slightly with the film’s big plot twist, then letting Emad’s own fragile masculinity do the rest. The tension in The Salesman all hinges on this one incident of mistaken identity and brief violence, one that can’t be undone or repaired. There is no grander escalation on the way, no confrontation with the former tenant who has inadvertently caused this mess (she remains a character only spoken of, an archetype as easy to imagine as the one the actors in Death of a Salesman snicker at).
As tense as Emad’s revenge quest gets, The Salesman still falls short of the devastating heights Farhadi has hit with his best films (along with A Separation, the brilliantly-calibrated About Elly, also starring Alidoosti, is a vital work). The Salesman’s conclusion, while gripping, feels somewhat pat, focusing on a confrontation that wraps things up too neatly and quickly, even if Emad and Rana’s marriage remains deeply troubled. As the film goes on and Emad feels further emasculation and rage, Hosseini plays him as almost physically burdened by the unsolved crime, slightly more stooped over, with a bit of a dejected shuffle. It’s then, finally, that viewers can really see some Willy Loman in him.