The neo-realist signature of Asghar Farhadi is now instantly recognizable, and he calligraphs it here with a fiery finesse. Following previous efforts like A Separation and Le Passé, one begins to get a sense of Farhadi’s penchant for capturing the nuances of crumbling relationships, as they unravel slowly but precisely within the context of Iranian society. His latest is no different in this regard, but where the auteur’s previous films felt like walking the winding trail of a mysterious forest, The Salesman is akin to staring down a winding serpent, feeling the jolt of fear and adrenaline the moment it finally strikes.
After tremors rock the foundation of their apartment building, literature teacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) find themselves in need of a new home. A member of their theatre troupe, with whom they’re putting on a local production of Death of a Salesman, helps them find a recently vacated apartment with a shaky foundation of its own. Its “promiscuous” former tenant has left her belongings in one of the rooms, and when a strange man comes knocking in search of her, Rana mistakes him for her husband and lets him inside. Her reward? An enormous gash to the head, the loss of her dignity after being found by her neighbors, and PTSD.
But this is not Rana’s story. If anything, it’s the story of how this narrative and her agency within it is slowly but surely stolen away from her; by her vicious attacker who makes her fear for her safety, by the people around her who can only see her through the lens of victimhood, and by her husband Emad whose ego won’t allow him to respect her wishes and let the matter lay. Police involvement would mean the hubbub of testifying and making Rana re-live her trauma, not to mention the fact that blame would be placed squarely on her shoulders. But even Emad, an ‘enlightened’ man of art and culture, has a retributive and almost transactionary view of justice. The erosion of his relationship with Rana begins with the erosion of his own moral fiber, as he decides to find her attacker and confront him.
Hosseini plays Emad with a kindness and decency, the kind that feels attractive to his students and cast members. As the nature of his marriage begins to transform (Rana’s trauma both concerns and inconveniences him), he slips slowly off his pedestal. His posture becomes weighty, his eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, consumed by the idea of taking revenge on an unseen man, a phantom he needs to catch. Alidosti’s Rana on the other hand, begins withdrawing into a cocoon. She approaches her situation as a matter of fact, or as matter-of-fact-ly as possible, trying her best to explain to her husband why she can’t go about her daily route, or be alone, or be around him. Nothing makes sense to either of them, and the frustration only builds, even in the tender moments where they look after the child of a cast mate, as it brings their own future into question.
Farhadi draws the viewer in with his keen eye for naturalism, but punctuates each scene with cinematic beats that have thunderous impact. Moments that make each tiny location and the motivations therein feel monumental, be it the unfamiliar apartment shared by Emad and Rana, or their rehearsals as Willy and Linda Loman. The film’s third act involves an inevitable confrontation, one that deserves to be experienced largely unspoiled. Not for any plot related twists or turns, but for the raw emotion at play within a situation that, even within the confines of a single setting, begins spiraling out of control. It’s the venom of the aforementioned snake. The blind desire for justice at any cost, coursing through Emad’s veins, making the bite feel all the more nasty.
I don’t recall a punch being thrown in the film (if there’s physical violence to be spoken off, it takes place off screen), but there is a semblance of a haphazard slap, one that barely connects yet feels more impactful and more devastating than any gunshot you’re likely to hear. The films builds and builds and builds, until it reaches the point of emotional betrayal, made more complex by worsening circumstances. When simply listed on paper, these micro conflicts sound almost mundane – failure to offer a glass of water, for instance – but they build to a riveting whole within the walls of Emad and Rana’s original apartment building, its cracks and crevices reflecting the tremors that are Emad’s every selfish decision despite his guilt and his shame, and the impact of every one of them on the woman he loves.
For all intents and purposes, The Salesman is a revenge film, but it wraps its violence in the neatest possible packing, repressing it far beneath the surface until it explodes in the form of words and intentions, things that seem to cut far deeper. Farhadi’s Willy Loman is as insecure, needy and burdened as Arthur Miller’s, but he’s a product of Farhadi’s world, where the onus of every decision falls on women and the men are emotionally volatile. It’s in the investigation of this world that Farhadi slips between its layers, unearthing the unspoken and the inexpressible and seeing where their confluence leads them.
The result is a razor sharp wire, tightening slowly.