It’s easy to consider hypothetical reactions when one is confronted with moral quandaries in the movies — especially in Hollywood movies. Good and evil is often black and white or presented against a backdrop of complete fantasy as depicted by safe stand-ins like superheroes and super villains. That’s fine for the kids, but it can make for a slog to an adult who has already had a taste of real life trauma and tests of morality. Thankfully, adults have the Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi to provide grounded adult drama featuring strong performances and smart writing that produce thrills grounded in reality. With The Salesman, the Oscar-winning writer-director of A Separation (2011) has been nominated once again for writing and directing a script of both nuance and intense thrills.
Farhadi knows how to sneakily front load a movie with seemingly mundane conflicts that feel like mere nuisances before building toward true tests of profound morality that tie back to those earlier incidents. In The Salesman, the world of a married couple is thrown off kilter with the introduction of a violent intruder. The drama begins when Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a husband and wife who are also two community actors, are forced to move out of their apartment when it becomes uninhabitable due to inept construction nearby. As a window seems to crack out of nowhere, it is revealed a backhoe digging nearby is the culprit. A fellow actor, Babak (Babak Karimi), happens to own an apartment he can rent out to them. However, he leaves out a little detail that might have saved the couple intense heartache until it’s too late.
Farhadi uses mise-en-scène as metaphor at the very start, with the film’s opening credits, which appear against the stage where our actors will present a series of performances of Death of a Salesman. All the shots feature the set as well as behind the scenes elements. With this simple juxtaposition, the filmmaker prepares the audience for a movie that both points to how reality seeps into fiction and how a fiction can never honestly present reality, be they dramatized for entertainment or the stories we tell when we don’t have all the facts. It’s a game of perceptions with an awareness of the connections between people who see what they see based on personal experiences. The scene immediately following the credits centers on the couple’s evacuation from their home. The physical cracks in their apartment foreshadow the cracks in this couple’s reality that will test their bond. If the window out to the scene of construction looks bad, wait till you see the fissure in the bedroom wall, right above the headboard.
After the attack on Rana, Emad has been gifted some tempting incidental clues that could lead him to the culprit. As Emad struggles to seek justice on behalf of his wife, difficulties don’t come from any roadblocks in the Iranian justice system. The couple make a silent decision to keep the police out of it. Farhadi inserts a Greek chorus of neighbors who say things like, “If I had caught him, I would have skinned him alive” and “Those people deserve to be publicly humiliated.” Emad begins to slip into the moral quagmire to take action while he and his wife still try to carry on with their performances as Willy and Linda Loman. Facade and farce pepper the couple’s real life trauma in a manner that ups the film’s moral quandary.
The drama builds quietly. Some may find the first act dull, as the act of moving into a new apartment proceeds with nary an incident. Except the previous tenant’s stuff is still in a locked room inside. As the film progresses, however, things change to reveal how certain actions can have unseen consequences. Farhadi creates a brilliant break from what seems “normal” with a simple, steady shot on a door slowly opening by itself, as only gravity seems to move it, bringing an inevitable sense of dread into focus. With these developments, there’s a sense that seemingly mundane things that happen early in the film reveal clues to inform heavy moral choices later on. They also reveal that some seeming incidental challenges as being detrimental during a confrontation at the end of the film. The script is built with obstacles in a thrilling way that makes up for its slow, seeming mundane opening. Things gradually come to light, ratcheting up the intensity to a showdown the audience will not see coming.
Farhadi never makes Emad’s decision to act an easy one. Performances are key to pulling it off, and both leads, who also starred in Farhadi’s strong 2009 movie About Elly (About Elly redefines the mystery movie by exploring human shortcomings — a film review), rise to the task. Hosseini wears a face of quiet conflict and distress through much of the film, using his arched eyebrows to their full potential. Rana, as the victim, deals with her own issues of trauma. Alidoosti gives her the complex sympathy of a strong woman confronting a grave change in her sense of self. This inner turmoil in both characters creates frustration in the marriage and a test of their bond that translates to their tasks as the leads in the play. On another level, Farhadi considers the objectification of Rana, not just from the attacker’s perspective but the husband’s distress and drive to seek justice with hardly any regard to how his wife might feel about his actions toward that justice. With The Salesman, Farhadi takes a test of morality in a seeming mundane life to call attention to the great fragility of human bonds, both interpersonal and social.
The Salesman runs 125 minutes, is in Persian with English subtitles and is rated PG-13. It opens in our South Florida area at the Miami-Dade College Tower Theater and the Coral Gables Art Cinema on Feb. 10. The Coral Gables Art Cinema will have an Opening Night Red Carpet Reception on Friday, Feb. 10, at 7 p.m., followed by the screening at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 general admission and $15 for members of the Cinema. On March 3, the film opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For screenings in other cities across the U.S., visit this link. This movie first played Miami during Miami Film Festival’s Gems.