The Salesman (2016) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for mature thematic elements and a brief bloody image
Running Time: 125 min.
Cast: Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Screenplay: Asghar Farhadi
Review published March 10, 2017
Shahab Hosseini (A Separation, About Elly) stars Tehrani resident Emad, as a high school literature teacher by day, and involved in the production of a Farsi community theater rendition of Arthur Miller's masterwork, "Death of a Salesman," which he is also starring in as Willy Loman, opposite his actress wife Rana as Linda (Taraneh Alidoosti, Fireworks Wednesday). After being forced to leave their current residence, they hastily move into an apartment building recommended by one of their fellow actors, only to discover that the prior tenant still had not entirely removed her belongings. While there alone Rana ends up the victim of a brutally violent assault while in the shower, leaving her traumatized from the event. Leary about involving the police in a matter that could bring shame to the couple, Emad seeks justice and perhaps revenge on the perpetrator, who he believes may have entered the apartment mistakenly believing the prior occupant, a reputed prostitute, had still been residing.
Asghar Farhadi (The Past, Beautiful City) writes and directs this Iranian drama, winner for Best Screenplay and Best Actor at Cannes 2016, as well as the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars (Farhadi's second film to win, after A Separation - becoming the fourth director to win the award more than once, after Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Vittorio De Sica), where Farhadi was famously not in attendance due to travel restrictions the Trump administration attempted to place on several Middle Eastern countries, including Farhadi's homeland of Iran. Farhadi had the idea for the film that had yet to be fleshed out and came up with the notion of the main characters being actors, because they would have to imagine themselves in the shoes of another, something that would create the feeling of empathy, even if the role they are playing isn't exactly a wholly good person. Farhadi researched various plays before settling in on Miller's "Death of a Salesman", because he felt they shared thematic parallels with the film he had been trying to make.
Farhadi is the master of posing moral dilemmas for his characters to sort through, and though some of the actions taken within the film may seem bad from an outside perspective, he is able to provide enough grey area that make such actions seem sympathetic. The shaky, deteriorating buildings foreshadow how the home can feel like it is crumbling from the inside when a traumatic event takes over, as his films like to explore how different sides of his characters emerge when faced with traumatizing circumstances that won't allow them to proceed as normal.
As far as the main story's relation to 'Death of a Salesman", the only strong connection is that it's about how a prideful man must deal with the trials and tribulations of living in the modern world, especially when humiliating consequences occur when judged by others. Farhadi, though, is more interested in his own characters within the play within the play, and how the external pressures begin to shape not only their performances in unexpected ways, but also, in one passionate scene, a bit of the dialogue. He allows the audience to come to their own judgments on the drama that transpires, letting the events unfold without overt need to evangelize or demonize anyone's particular point of view. It's all impeccable, though I do have one quibble from a storytelling standpoint, which is the way in which Emad discovers the identity of the culprit, which only really stands out because it is the major contrivance in a film that is otherwise played out very naturally in its narrative.
Farhai's an excellent filmmaker, and turns in a good and thoughtful film with skillful performances, though The Salesman likely won't go down as his best film for many, despite its accolades. Nevertheless, it's a suspenseful drama with some interesting, realistic dilemmas. Despite any cultural differences or language barriers, Farhadi is able to root into universal themes where his dramas could happen just about anywhere in the world, with sympathetic and complex characters that aren't completely morally good or evil, but they are all very human, putting us, as the audience, into the mindset of the characters having to navigate through some tricky maneuvers in order to see the conflict through to resolution.
Interestingly, Emad, who, as an actor by trade, has a blind spot caused by his rage that doesn't allow himself to see things from the perspective of another man, resulting one bad situation getting supplanted by another, perhaps more egregious one. Interesting is the irony whereby they must dress up in the clothes and make-up of an elderly couple, one that will echo resoundingly when they must find a way to place themselves in the position of having to relate to others in a similar situation, but their own personal feelings are stifling their ability to provide the empathy necessary to avoid conflict. Farhadi sets all of these dilemmas up and then stands back from them, letting the natural story take its course for our own perusal and discussion, as we too must put ourselves in the shoes of this well-drawn couple and ask ourselves, "What would we do in this situation?"
©2017 Vince Leo