“The Salesman” is an Iranian film about revenge, layered with subtle nuances and interesting analogies. It earned writer and director Asghar Farhadi his second and well-deserved academy award for best foreign language film, the first one granted for “A Separation.” He did not attend the Oscars ceremony as a statement to Trump’s immigration ban, and his absence spoke louder than a speech ever could.
The film opens with Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) having to evacuate their apartment because the walls are falling apart. The couple is participating in an Iranian adaptation of Arthur Miller’s iconic play “Death of a Salesman,” to which the analogies are indirect but meaningful. They move into a new apartment provided by a member of the theater crew. They discover that the previous tenant was “promiscuous,” which generates a central problem: Rana will get assaulted by a former client of the prostitute, who infiltrated the apartment. “The Salesman” then transforms into a tale of revenge, as Emad dedicates his energy to finding the client.
Emad is a committed actor and school teacher who is loved by his students. After his wife’s assault, he undergoes a fascinating transformation: his thirst for revenge surfaces. His revenge is a flaw from which the film suffers: his weak masculinity takes centerstage as Rana’s trauma is overshadowed.
Shahab Hosseini does an amazing job at embodying a man taken by a vengeance he sees justified. His portrayal shows a kind of anger that is dormant, ready to explode at any given moment.
The protagonist’s state of mind reflects the overall atmosphere of the film. The violence, which is a part of the story, is never shown; it is omnipresent but visually absent, which emphasizes its importance.
Emad’s scenes with the client are the most electrifying. The film does not need music or special effects to emphasize the tension between these characters as Farhadi’s camera invigoratingly tracks their gaze and movements.
Farhadi’s critique of the Iranian government is subtle. For example, the couple’s hesitation to go to the police after the assault says a lot about the situation of law enforcement in the country. He also makes allusion to the issue of censorship, as the woman who is supposed to play a prostitute in the play comes on stage covered from head to toe and wearing a red coat. Even the prostitute who used to live in the couple’s apartment makes no physical appearance in the film. Her absence is, of course, intentional and noticeable.
As the film progresses, Emad becomes more and more similar to Willy Loman, the main character he plays in “Death of a Salesman.” Both characters are burdened by a preconceived idea of masculinity that dictates their transformation and leads them to a tragic path in which they let down their families, even though it was the one thing they were trying to avoid.
Asghar Farhadi opens the film with the crumbling walls of the couple’s apartment, which foreshadows the figurative collapse and deterioration of Rana and Emad’s relationship at the end.