It's Miller Time for Asghar Farhadi

The Salesman (Forushande)
(Iran/France, 125 min.)
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti
Shahab Hosseini & Taraneh Alidoosti in The Salesman directed by Asghar Farhadi
Elevation Pictures
It's Miller Time for Asghar Farhadi. The Oscar winning director of A Separation returns with this sparse parable that draws upon the beloved American play Death of a Salesman. Opening in theatres with the news that Farhadi won’t be attending the Oscars due to President Trump’s outrageous Muslim ban, this nominee for Best Foreign Language Film benefits from hitting screens when viewers must be willing to open themselves up when the powers that be are closing borders to entire pockets of the world. This demanding and at times painfully slow film asks a lot of a viewer to disentangle Farhadi's play with Miller's text. The Salesman might be an exercise in patience, but it is also a necessary essay on compassion.

The film centres on a husband and wife as their marriage disintegrates. Farhadi opens the film with Emad (Shahab Hosseini, brilliant in a performance of brooding complexity) and wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti, equally strong in a performance of quiet power) fleeing as their apartment building crumbles atop its symbolically shaky foundation. This loss leads to a new home when Emad’s friend and fellow actor rents the couple a newly vacated apartment in his building. As is often the case when something sounds too good to be true, this apartment is haunted.

Ghosts do not haunt it, mind you, but it’s rather steeped in the values of patriarchy that define much of Middle Eastern culture and attitudes in the world more broadly. The former tenant, Emad and Rana learn, was a woman of ill repute. When one of her former callers comes knocking at their door, Rana finds herself a victim of male entitlement and—quiet distressingly—internalised guilt and shame.

Farhadi’s script, which, like lead actor Hosseini, boasts a win from last year’s Cannes Film Festival, never actually says what happens to Rana, but he clearly implies it with the roundabout way that everyone discusses the attack. The men and women in the film have markedly different attitudes towards the ordeal. As Emad discovers that his wife may have been subject to worse violations that the bump on her head and cuts on her face, the vexed and anguished man almost acts as if he were the victim.

What ensues is a tense marital drama and revenge play alike as Emad searches for Rana’s attacker. However, one can debate how much their quest is about justice or personal honour. Rana would much rather let things rest: she insists they go neither to the police nor to the man’s family. Nobody’s family, least of hers, should experience the shame.

Farhadi crafts an allegorical morality play that builds upon Emad and Rana’s passion for theatre as the pair stars in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The classic work about poor schmuck Willy Loman provides some resonate lines of dialogue that sharpen the themes of the film, and a character of a hooker in a flashy red raincoat and sporty hat adds to the problematic perceptions of women that contribute to Rana’s victimisation. The parallels with The Salesman and Death of a Salesman essentially end there though, besides Emad leaving his family worse off than it was before due to his misguided effort to protect it. What Farhadi aims to do with the frequent digressions into Death of a Salesman is never clear.

Everyone plays a defined role in this patriarchal society, but for a director who works at his best in shades of realism and naturalism, the theatrical overtones of The Salesman frequently betray how contrived, forced, and eventually preposterous the film becomes. Some of the exchanges seem so authentic though, like the wife of Rana’s attacker pleading for the life of the man to whom she has selflessly devoted herself. If these are real people and real stories, and serious problems in the Middle East, rendering their lives to the level of American drama just feels off.

Death of a Salesman is all about the collapse of the American Dream, the futility of committing oneself to the rat race when one is ultimately more dead than alive. Sure, The Salesman contrasts two collapsing ideologies, and perhaps ironically so given the situation in which Farhadi now finds himself as Trump’s selfish machismo stains America just like Emad’s proud desire to cling to old ways is his downfall. So many distorted lenses, however, create a murky picture.

The Salesman is now playing in limited release.