The Salesman opens with the lighting and darkening of set pieces. Shadows of angled furniture, occasionally mixed with deep reds, come in and out. The sound of vocal warm-ups echo like a prayer in the background. Farhadi pulls us out of this quiet sanctuary and places us in danger. We’re in a typical apartment building but rumbles begin to echo. Shouts of fear rage around in the night. Windows slowly fracture and we wait for them to break. The building is crumbling but we don’t know just when it will fall. We don’t even get to see the window break.
Among the confusion we meet our protagonists, husband and wife Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), actors in the upcoming production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”. Now without a home, they rent a new apartment from one of their fellow actors. The couple settles into their new apartment only to discover that the previous tenant had been a prostitute with many visitors. Not soon after, the couple’s life is turned upside down after one of the woman’s clients comes for a visit when Rana is home alone.
With most Farhadi’s films the less plot one goes in knowing, the better. The Salesman is no different. What unfolds is an exploration of revenge. Emad takes on both judge and jury while Rana descends into rapid isolation. Much like A Separation (2011) and About Elly (2009), Farhadi’s neo-realistic directing style puts the audience in the midst of a family drama but, because of encompassing naturalism in both direction and camerawork, it never comes too close to melodrama. Only Farhadi could hold on an opening door and have it fill you with the most unbearable dread.
Each word uttered drips in an intensity that most films won’t even attempt to touch. The performances are restrained but provoking. Hosseini is tortured but a figure of importance presenting his character with distinct, but subtle difference depending on his current audience. Alidoosti matches Hosseini’s suffering, but where he finds madness in an attempt to solidify, she instead unravels to both new failures and strengths.
With the nuanced script and the tense, human performances, Farhadi is able to capture with precision the exact, tumultuous trauma at the core of this crumbling family. Though it is less enrapturing than his other films it sticks largely to the same formula. The themes of justice, morality and alienation ring clearly. Unlike A Separation or About Elly, the dilemma here feels more a personal take than a strict morality tale but the exploration of revenge and fear are adept enough to trick one into feeling as if they’re a nosy neighbor unable to look away.
The film attempts to bring that universality with the inclusion of the performance of “Death of a Salesman”. The play is famous for its exploration of the American Dream and what that means for different people. I, not having read the play, always assumed it was more an exploration of masculinity–the role men must play in others lives and for themselves–as one struggles to define success. In much the same way, the play’s theme of denial are paralleled here. In “Death of a Salesman” the protagonist is in denial, in the last day of his life, of his true successes and accomplishments. In order to feel he was successful he retreats into his past and re-frames his experiences so that they are what he wants them to be. In much the same way, Emad does this as well. He is in denial about his own ability to control his life and protect his family. There’s the possibility of reading too much into it, though Farhadi is a director known for his complexity. To put it simply the play within the film accentuates the roles these characters are forced into in their society, their home and their jobs. Still there is something to the concept that this Iranian couple is putting on a production of a play that is so culturally American….
The film itself is worthy of more admiration than most. It’s a slow burn that makes you feel as if you’ve been stabbed and are left to bleed to death for two hours before the light slowly leaves you. It bites you with its intelligent, emotive script and draws you fully in with its beautiful, specific cinematography choices. What remains the major enticement is that it will challenge you in ten different ways. It ends on a unsurprising note which, though depressing, does not pack the morality punch that Farhadi is famous for. Perhaps he held himself too far back–taking away layers and twists that his audience has become accustomed to. Revenge is a hard genre to end correctly–or perhaps differently. With Farhadi it could never be so simple. Revenge stems from anger and anger, as the famous adage goes, is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. It could not end well.