by Peter J. O'Connell
The Salesman. Broad release (USA): Jan. 2017. Runtime: 125 mins. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements and a brief bloody image. In Farsi, with English subtitles.
We see a double-bed spotlighted. The camera pulls back, and we see that the bed is on a stage in a theater.
Suddenly, we are shown panicky residents fleeing an apartment building that is in danger of collapsing because digging has weakened its foundations.
With these two scenes, acclaimed Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi both initiates the action of his plot and establishes the metaphorical concept of his Oscar-nominated (for Best Foreign Language Film) The Salesman.
Among the fleeing residents of the apartment building are a married couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). Emad is an amiable teacher at a Tehran high school. Rana is a housewife. They have no children. But both are members of a community theater group that is rehearsing a production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Emad is playing the forlorn Willy Loman and Rana Willy's weary wife, Linda. The two wear gray wigs and makeup to play their older, careworn characters.
Babak (Babak Karimi), a member of the theater group, steers Emad and Rana to another apartment building, where they can live until it is safe to return to their original building. After Emad and Rana move in, however, disquieting information about the previous resident of the apartment emerges. She may have been a loose woman, who had unsavory types of men come over at all hours of the night.
One night Emad comes home from rehearsing scenes without Rana and finds his wife injured and in a state of shock. Expecting Emad's return, Rana had left the apartment door ajar. A strange man entered and accosted her from behind while she was showering. She received her injury while fighting him off, but she says that she never did get a clear look at him.
Emad, of course, is outraged. Rana's reaction is somewhat surprising, though, She does not want the police notified. Willy Loman fell into despair because he felt that he could not properly care for his family. Emad increasingly comes to feel that he is somehow at fault for not properly protecting his wife. He sets out to follow various clues that may lead him to Rana's attacker. Though she is in a very withdrawn state, Rana, however, appears to take several actions that hinder Emad's quest for vengeance.
The film seems to be taking a Hitchcockian path as tension mounts slowly, but steadily, unaided by any musical cues. But perhaps Michelangelo Antonioni or Ingmar Bergman would be more relevant referents, for the mystery of Farhadi's film is more about what is in the characters' hearts and minds rather than “who done it.” What, for example, does Emad really want revenge for?
The film is subtle but totally gripping, and the performances are marvelously nuanced. That such a fine work of art as The Salesman can come out of Iran despite its repressive regime may be surprising to many. Apparently, however, as long as certain restrictions are followed, the traditional vibrant cultural diversity of “Persia” is allowed., including production of classic American and European plays. The restrictions include that every woman must wear a hair covering, which all of the women in The Salesman do--both in the main plot and in “the play.”