The Salesman, 2016.
Directed by Asghar Farhadi.
Starring Taraneh Alidoost, Shahab Hosseini, Farid Sajjadi Hosseini, and Babak Karimi.
In modern-day Iran, a teacher and his wife are preparing for the opening night of their amateur production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. But work on an adjacent building makes their own apartment block dangerous, so they’re forced to move in a hurry. A friend rents them an apartment, but then mistaken identity and violence threaten to undermine their marriage.
There are few experiences in the theatre more emotionally shattering than a good production of a classic Arthur Miller play. In the right hands, he tears you to shreds with his portraits of men who suffer as the result of one action, deliberate or otherwise. While Iranian director Asghar Farhadi prefers to put couples under stress, the similarities between him and the American dramatist come to the forefront in his second Oscar winner, The Salesman, which arrives on DVD this week.
The couple of at the centre of this contemporary Iranian tragedy, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoost), are involved in an amateur production of Miller’s Death of a Salesman: Emad plays Willy Loman and Rana is his wife, Linda. A devoted couple whose apparently ideal marriage turns out to be based on lies and illusion. The modern-day couple also seem to have an idyllic marriage but, initially through no fault of their own, they find themselves under unbearable pressure and the cracks begin to show in their relationship. Cracks that were physically predicted by the damage inflicted on the apartment that they have to abandon in such a hurry. Except they can’t do that with their marriage.
Farhadi, who wrote as well as directing, gives us a linear story with little in the way of sub-plot, but sketches in a couple of threads for us to work out for ourselves. And they’re both crucial to the story. There’s a portrait of somebody we never see, the original resident of the flat. She’s left her possessions locked up in a room, telling the landlord that she’ll come back and collect them once she’s sorted out somewhere new to live. Farhadi takes his time creating this invisible character: we see some of her possessions, we hear comments from the neighbours, then there’s more of her items but in more detail and, finally, messages on her answerphone. All of which adds up to a woman who, in the words of her formers neighbours, “had a lot of visitors.” And she clearly had a toddler in tow.
The other portrait is created with speed and broader brush strokes. This time it’s an elderly man, a family man, somebody with a weak heart, the last person anybody would expect to indulge in violence. But he’s the person that Emad is convinced was responsible for the attack that has shattered his wife and which she won’t report to the police: the resulting shame and damage to their reputation would be just too much to bear. But which man is the salesman of the title? Or is it both of them? Just like the original Willy Loman, a single action has torn their lives to pieces and each suffers the consequences.
It’s a masterly piece of storytelling, reinforced by Farhadi’s naturalistic style which concentrates on the narrative and characters. Everything else, soundtrack included, falls very much into second place and it makes for arresting, powerful viewing. The performances from the couple at the heart of the action are equally compelling, as is Farid Sajjadi Hosseini, described on the cast list as simply The Man, in turns angry and panicky, vulnerable and pathetic.
The angry Emad gets his revenge, but in a way that belongs in a classical tragedy. There’s no sense of satisfaction: instead, his actions sit heavily on his shoulders and he fears for his marriage. He sits in the make-up chair preparing for his final performance as Willy Loman with a distant, empty look in his eyes. He has no idea what the future holds. And nor do we.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★