Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman isn’t as multifaceted a multi-character story as A Seperation and it cannot match About Elly as an eloquent study of how personal identity is as much a construction by other people as an effusion of your own will. But although, thriller credentials aside, it is a mild retread of Farhadi’s two masterpieces, it is still extraordinarily thoughtful cinema on its own terms, as bold as it is quietly assiduous. As with all of Farhadi’s films, an extremely precise narrative of minutiae manifests multitudes of even more incisive observations on Iranian society more broadly. And while the first 90 minutes are merely solid Farhadi, the apex of the drama – maybe the acme of Farhadi’s career – is a three-character mini-play where audience sympathy, empathy, and desire become malleable clay for a director for whom each moment is a glint of new suspicion or a twitchy shiver of dramatic reorganization. Farhadi has compassion for all his characters, but he treats interpersonal quandary as an abyss of revelation in a drama we must navigate rather than merely watch. His film is a diamond, not because it glistens but because every visual frame or character lens destabilizes the drama and emanates a new image of existence. Or a new point of view, shining with the blinding, brilliant light of its own remarkable negotiation of personal perception, of seeing things anew such that old modes of thought are now futile, permanently disabled, the refuge of the mentally-obliging. The Salesman is a wonderfully pliant creation. It’s also somewhat unevenly sculpted, but we’ll get there as well.
In The Salesman, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are a married couple of actors in modern day Tehran currently performing in Death of a Salesman for a local theater troupe. When a freak earthquake uproots the foundations of their apartment, they are forced to relocate, and, because this is Farhadi, this physical, material uproot has aftershocks both emotional, mental, and philosophical. Ending up in an apartment once occupied by a prostitute, a momentary lapse in the form of a cracked door leads to a major trauma – Rana is assaulted by an unknown male assailant – that in turn informs a minor crack in Emad and Rana’s relationship which then festers. Not into a full-scale separation, but into a much more diffuse, but more consequential, reflection of more significant fissures in the social tapestry beyond Emad and Rana.
Or rather, The Salesman eventually suggests those fissures, but before that, it settles into a mode of admittedly personalized detective fiction that is nonetheless lightly hamstrung by its decision to simmer in that comparatively mundane mode for so long. The mystery itself – the issue of who actually assaulted Rana – is, perhaps, more ancillary to the actual value of the film, a value clarified beyond reproach in the culmination, than truly essential to the emotional or intellectual quotient of Farhadi’s ideas. It’s part of the narrative, yes, but for the middle-hour of the film, The Salesman also doesn’t always excuse itself from criticisms that it is purely an exercise in narrative mechanics, a mystery for the sake of mystery, an excuse for Farhadi to try on his finest Bogart. The first half-hour is filled with ambiguous filigrees and shifting focal points, defined by an ambiguity rooted in how these two once-and-maybe-still lovers relate to one another, how they are to recover from the ruptures in their home-life, and why Rana is being so equivocal about the assault in the first place. Comparatively, the slow but unexpected shift (devolution?) to the comparatively banal mystery and definitive answer of who the attacker is seems like a relative waste of Farhadi’s prodigious gifts as the de facto chronicler of minor but not minimal sadnesses and small slivers of interpersonal disagreement which into decompose and contribute to wider social drift.
Eventually, however, The Salesman not only returns to its prior state but self-complicates in an astonishing, quietly-bravura final half-hour that recontextualizes itself – or at least deepens relatively subliminal themes from the rest of the film – as a thoughtful rumination on male hubris. Emad’s venture into the final satisfaction of locating his wife’s oppressor becomes an analysis of his incessant assumption that the assault on his wife grants him carte blanche to exercise any and all due diligence to locate and disrupt the potential assailant. He demands fealty from his wife under the express belief that his actions are morally justified as a beneficiary of patriarchal “good man” syndrome. His will to do what he feels his wife will not allows him to dismiss his wife’s often reasonable opinions about her own assault under the belief that she is simply hysterical or acting “womanly” and illogical.
The mirroring of on and off stage throughout the film, most dexterously when Rana begs her husband not to hunt for her assailant much like her characters in Death of a Salesman requests that William Loman not head out to his job, also illustrates overlaps in personal performance. It ruminates on our daily lives as personal presentations of self. With internal and external theater in conversation with one another, Rana not only feels the need to exert an exterior façade of strength but to believe it. And, more importantly for the conclusion, Emad has to act out an image of the benevolent, protective man to legitimize himself in a society (not Iran, but the world) that validates women as victims and men as agents rather than considering both in the full gamut of their possible selves. For each of the two central characters, identity partially necessitates a sometimes-violent sublimation of the breadth of self to implicit social assumptions about who men and women are supposed to be. Just as Wille Loman suffers not only because he cannot embody the archetype of a self-made man but because he has to or is supposed to define his identity through this quest, so too does Emad sublimate any potential alternate selves to the need to foist himself into the straightjacket of paternalistic, unquestioned husbandry.
The final quarter of The Salesman is nothing less than the art-house equivalent of a blockbuster’s showpiece set-piece, but it works because it denies any final comeuppance. Instead of a conclusive thrust toward ultimate solution, the long, polyphonous conversation takes the form of a thoughtful meditation on men who – and films which – take ownership of women’s emotions while devaluing or conspicuously overlooking any range of their own emotions which do not conform to their own need to control and use female emotions. At the same time, The Salesman is also a performative embodiment of this theme, a fact that is both pointed and somewhat problematic. In other words, the film is about men who sideline women’s emotions, but The Salesman is also complicit with this masculine act perhaps in service of making the argument in the first place. Different viewers may or may not be comfortable granting the film leniency in treating this curious method as a conscious decision on the film’s part. But it is an issue and one which, on balance, is equivocal in its benefits to the film. Throughout the film, we harbor a sneaking suspicion that the unsettling occurrence Rana faced and which she now wishes to put behind her grants Emad a distraction from his already-frustrated life and the quotidian caliber of his everyday functioning. But this is only clarified in the ending, where the film finally removes its still-important shroud of the “assailant” mystery only to reveal any “solution” as a slide into uncertainties of much more ambivalently unbalanced, complicated, and truly existentially dismaying. Until then, we’re left pondering the film’s decision to emphasize Emad’s emotions, and his perspective, over Rana’s.
Still, while it is imperfect, The Salesman is a valiant drama of vulnerable people benefited from Farhadi’s devout awareness of quotidian spaces in both their barren and over-populated or cramped variations as well as his inimitable skill to move flimsy, emotionally-shaky people simultaneously through spaces, around each other, and along a fragile slope of moral uncertainty, often to tragic inevitability. His imagery is anti-apocalyptic and defiantly everyday, but he is unfathomably skilled at dramatizing the splinters between people. Not as excuses for rubber-stamped, melodramatic over-emphasis, but as delicate tales of shattered human perception evasively circling around the possibility of moral collapse and the kind of disagreement between men and women which cannot be reconciled with an eventual, pin-pointable, individualized villain. For most of the film, Emad is the stalking hunter in search of what he thinks is an abomination of malehood. But we find, and Hossein’s performance suggests that Emad does too, that the more insidious male may be himself. His own act of taking control of Rana’s emotions is complicit with if not identical to her assaulter’s own assumption that he has access to her body and mind. Certainly, it is slightly limiting that Farhadi puts a pin in the film’s most complicated themes until the finale. Still though, his skill remains unparalleled at exposing consequence cloistered beneath the seemingly normal, at puzzling-out sometimes intangible snippets of humanity-in-crisis not because of large-scale catastrophe but more intimate miscalculations of other peoples’ needs.