Directed by Asghar Farhadi. Iran. 2016. PG-13. 125 minutes. Cohen Media Group. Digital.
Fri., March 31, 2017 thru Thu., April 6, 2017
Best Foreign Film Oscar Winner for 2017!
“The first thing we see, in “The Salesman,” is a double bed. And the first words we get are not spoken but illuminated, in yellow and neon pink: “Hotel,” “Casino,” “Bowling.” None of them, let’s be honest, are what we expect in a movie from the Islamic Republic of Iran. But the sleight of hand is typical of the director, Asghar Farhadi, who has—in films like “About Elly” (2009), “A Separation” (2011), and “The Past” (2013)—shown himself to be a master of disorientation. What we are looking at is a stage set, built for a production of “Death of a Salesman,” in present-day Tehran. Arthur Miller would have approved. In a 1997 interview, he spoke about productions of the work in other countries, such as Sweden and China, and of the discrepancies that arose:
Some of the etiquette is different. People don’t address parents quite the way Americans do, and there is also a question of intimacy. Americans make a play at being very intimate very quickly, which seems disrespectful sometimes to people who aren’t used to instant emotional closeness.
These questions of intimacy and respect, and of how both can be violated, beat at the heart of “The Salesman.” The role of Willy Loman is taken by Emad Etesami (Shahab Hosseini), a part-time actor who also works as a teacher. By a pleasing symmetry, Willy’s wife, Linda, is played by Emad’s wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). Unlike the Lomans, however, the Etesamis have no children—no Happy or Biff to tighten the screws of disappointment. From what we observe, too, Emad seems pretty good at his day job; his pupils, boys in their teens, engage freely in classroom discussion. If, when he falls asleep in class one day, they grab the chance to take pictures of him with their cell phones, well, what high-school kid, anywhere in the world, could refuse such a gift?
The Etesamis’ problems start and end at home, a place that soon becomes untenable. A fracture appears in a bedroom wall of their apartment; windows crack without being touched, as if by hostile magic. Residents are told to leave the building, which is listing and shifting because of construction work next door. (“What a disaster, this town,” Emad says. “If we could only raze it all and start again.” Sounds like a failed marriage.) Needing somewhere else in a hurry, Emad and Rana move into another apartment, recently vacated; the previous tenant has left a roomful of stuff. We never meet her, but, like the first Mrs. de Winter, in “Rebecca,” she hovers over the action. “A woman with lots of acquaintances,” we are told. “She lived a wild life,” a neighbor remarks. We get the point.
One of those acquaintances brings trouble. Rana, taking a shower, leaves the apartment door open for her husband, who is due home. As the gaze of the camera lingers on that door, ajar, we realize that someone else is coming. (Michael Haneke, the maker of “Funny Games” and “Hidden,” would surely commend such lingering.) By the time Emad arrives, there is blood in the stairwell, and Rana has been wounded in the head. Beyond those brute facts, though, everything blurs. She never caught sight of her attacker, nor did we. Was a sexual offense committed, too? Was there even an attack, or did she stumble and fall in fear?
What matters is what does not happen next. An American woman, taken to a hospital—as Rana is—to have her injury treated, would be asked about the circumstances, and law enforcement would be called. Not here. When Emad suggests going to the police, his wife demurs. “I don’t want to have to tell it in front of everybody,” she says, and her fellow-citizens agree that doing nothing is the smartest option. A neighbor tells her that, in regard to her assailant, “you’ll have to justify letting him in. There would be a trial and all kinds of stories.” So that’s it. The woman is the guilty party until proved innocent. Shame inflicts a secondary blow; reputations can be broken as easily as skulls. Western viewers, watching “A Separation,” which dealt with divorce and the care of an elderly parent, had to keep pace with an unfamiliar legal system as they went along, but the path taken by “The Salesman” is less public and more oblique. We don’t see a single cop, let alone a lawyer or a cleric, yet by their very absence we sense their clamp on society: a clever move by Farhadi, who shows nothing that could vex Iranian censors but whose intent is nonetheless caustic and precise.
Little by little, Emad—bearded and reflective, the grain of his anxiety finely conveyed by Shahab Hosseini—turns into an amateur sleuth. He locates the intruder’s pickup truck and tracks him down. When the culprit is revealed at last, he sidles inadvertently into view, and the figure that he cuts, to Emad’s consternation, could not conform less to the image of a lecherous fiend. What follows, in the final half hour of the movie, is an astounding chamber piece, worthy of Strindberg, with the husband, the wife, and her aggressor stuck in a dance of doubt and death. With every shot, our sympathies flicker and tilt. We feel sorry for the shambling villain (asked about his work, he replies, “I sell clothes by the roadside in the evening”), and then, the next moment, abashed at our twinge of pity. Compare this lengthy scene with the no less agonized “Manchester by the Sea,” and you hit a cultural gulf: what the American film presents as emotional turmoil comes across, in Farhadi’s tale, as a piercing moral debate, its wording culled not from psychology but from older schools of thought. “Forgive me,” the intruder says. “I was tempted.”
Rana is ready to pardon him, but not Emad, who presses for revenge. Indeed, it is his response to Rana’s ordeal, more than her own trauma, that dominates the plot, and the one flaw in this formidable work is that its attention rests so instinctively on Emad. “I’m not noticed,” Willy complains, in a line from Miller that makes it into “The Salesman,” but today’s audience may wonder if the play itself takes enough notice of Linda Loman, and the same applies to Rana. You fully believe that Emad loves her, yet you also catch his imperious tone toward her (“Stay there,” “Don’t interfere”), and you want to know: How about her secrets, or her scars? That urge is all the stronger because she is played by Taraneh Alidoosti, who took the title role in “About Elly,” and who has one of those neat round faces that have held the screen since the infancy of cinema, shaded by different moods: a dash of the vamp, for Clara Bow; queenly wit, for Claudette Colbert; waspishness, for Myrna Loy; and a hint of whiskers, for Simone Simon, in “Cat People.” Alidoosti, in turn, brings gravity and grief, and the stare that Rana directs at Emad, after his attempts at reprisal have gone awry, is so coruscating that you doubt their marriage can survive. Hence the unforgettable sequence in a dressing room, with the two of them being made up before going onstage. Each sits in front of a mirror, but, as framed by Farhadi, they seem to be inspecting each other face to face, without words or mercy. Why must the show go on?” (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker)
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