Film Review: The Salesman

A classic whodunit with Asghar Farhadi’s characteristically impeccable plotting and buildup of suspense. Despite its somewhat outdated gender dynamics, this is a fine addition to the auteur’s filmography.
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Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi often brings up his background in theatre in talks and interviews. While the director’s unimpeachable grasp of dramaturgy adorns his entire filmography that includes masterworks like A Separation and Fireworks Wednesday, his love of and roots in theatre have never been quite as plainly pronounced as they are in his typically solid, suspenseful drama, The Salesman.

In his latest investigative and philosophical exercise on the search for truth and pursuit of justice, we’re quickly made aware of this from the film’s early moments, with a shot of a light switch turned on and illuminating a theatre stage preparing to host a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The Salesman is a crime story at its core and has ties to Miller’s play beyond its title, with character traits that align to those from Miller’s play. And despite its certain old-fashioned, even somewhat problematic gender dynamics (more on this later), this is a characteristic Farhadi film in which he turns his lens on the men and women of middle-class Iran lovingly and critically. It is astutely observed, incisively constructed with tightly interwoven conflicts and resolutions, and directed with an uncompromising control over the film’s unfolding, gripping tension.

The story begins with a metaphoric, significant occurrence. We see a middle-class apartment building shudder and start to crumble while its many terrified occupants run for their dear lives. Among them are Emad (Shahab Hosseini, sturdy, increasingly intense) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti, understated and emotionally in control)—a couple who work and act in theatre on the aforementioned production of Miller’s play. They make it out of the building safely, but find themselves forced to relocate: Though the building doesn’t fully collapse, it carries potentially fatal structural damage. And so they move to a convenient apartment nearby which looks to be an imperfect but acceptable home. Soon enough, we get introduced to a side character that we often hear of but don’t ever see: a previous female tenant of Emad and Rana’s new apartment, who left many of her belongings there and somehow refuses to come and claim them. We learn, through some politically correct explanation from those involved in the rental deal, that she is a prostitute (the word is never used) who accepted her clients in her apartment.

The shadow of their apartment’s past soon enough haunts them. An unlocked door and a would-be client of the previous tenant mistakenly buzzed in to the building lead to Rana being attacked by this man. Farhadi puts us in Emad’s shoes and doesn’t show us the crime itself. Instead, we get to follow Emad’s lead when he arrives home one day, notices the unlocked door and the bloody traces around the bathroom, and discovers his wife has already been taken to the hospital with a head injury. From this point on, The Salesman takes a classic whodunit turn, with Emad pursuing and considering every single suspect he deems plausible with the clues left inside the apartment, which include a wad of cash.

As a woman originally from a country nestled between Europe and the Middle East with modern and traditional influences from various regions, I am not foreign to the traditional patriarchal drive of protecting and preserving female honor—the idea of which isn’t all that uncommon even in contemporary, modern circles like Emad’s. Despite his being a clearly progressive man in the arts, we watch with alarm and quasi-sympathy as Emad obsessively searches for the criminal, despite protests from Rana, who, while terrified and emotionally aching, seems like she’d like to move on. Farhadi’s beautiful script is, again characteristically, cliché-free and far from one-note: His perceptive writing more than arms Rana with qualities like empathy, emotional resilience and smarts (oftentimes, even greater than Emad’s). Moreover, when he reveals the identity of the assailant—without spoilers, let me say he is a remorseful and vulnerable figure—Farhadi elegantly leaves the blaming to the audience: Where you leave this movie and whether you’re willing to forgive the criminal’s temptation will depend on what you bring to the story. But the slightly troubling dynamic I had indicated earlier will linger throughout—that the entire catastrophe happened because of an immoral woman who isn’t even there to speak for herself.

Still, The Salesman works on all the storytelling levels Farhadi is a praiseworthy master of. He uses interiors with immaculate precision and thoughtfully delivers his characters’ physical and emotional journeys, as we have come to expect from him. Most of all, he continues to prove, scene by scene, that he understands how men and women relate to each other while navigating the many imperfections of society.

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