Review: The Salesman

Bruised egos and battered bodies conflict in Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning, unnerving family drama. Toxic masculinity in play.  

The charged cauldron of domesticity disturbed is stirred to devastating effect in Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s emotionally complex movies, from the Oscar-winning A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) through The Past (Le Passé) to his latest to take home an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, The Salesman (Forushande), a side play of sorts to Arthur Miller’s greatest text about a simple man undone.

Our simple man here is Shahab Hosseini’s Emad, a Tehran-based school teacher discussing film with his students by day and treading the board at night in a local production of Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Taraneh Alidoosti, as Emad’s wife Rana, also plays salesman Willy Loman’s wife Linda.

The fractures that will splinter this couple’s home begin very literally as an opening scene that’s action movie-tense depicts the evacuation of their apartment block in the middle of the night, as cracks erupt in both the windows and walls, seemingly caused by excavation work next door.

This forces them to relocate, strapped for cash and taking up the kind offer of a rambunctious fellow actor played by Babak Karimi, who helps move them into a ramshackle property on the roof of another building. Little do the Emad and Rana know that it, too, has been rapidly evacuated by the previous tenant, a sex worker whose belongings are locked-up in the spare room. When one of her clients returns, rana inadvertently buzzes him in believing it to be Emad, and she is violently assaulted off-screen.

This unseen invasion and its aftermath unfolds as a tense whodunit, as Emad becomes increasingly and aggressively obsessed with bringing the perpetrator to justice, even as his firecracker agitation and wounded male ego drive a psychologically and physically wounded Rana away. All the while, the show must go on, with the meta-textual unravelling of the Lomans bearing an uncanny resemblance to the collapse of this couple, with one drama-within-the-drama moment seeing Rana lose her will to act out this split mid-scene.

But their tale is no simple re-tread of Miller, and the ramifications of personal invasion ripple outward, most notably in a school-set scene where one pupil videos a sleeping Emad unwittingly, raising his ire intensely on awakening and turning the intrusion backwards, seizing his phone and threatening to show the presumably incriminating photos within to the petrified boy’s father.

While the mystery is unravelled, Agatha Christie-style in the final act, much as it was in a more convoluted The Past, and while that sparks another drama, the perpetrator isn’t really the point – The Salesman is about the consequences of the action, not the assault itself, and the very real fissure in a relationship that, so easily cracked, causes one to question how solid their marriage ever was.

Hosseini and Alidoosti, who both appeared in Farhadi’s About Elly (Darbareye Elly), are incredibly gifted actors who sell the conflicts of their characters convincingly, with Emad’s downward spiral towards violence quite horrifying, and  Rana’s terror palpable. Farhadi, for his part, as both writer and director, is almost unrivalled at inserting dramatic artifice into seemingly naturalistic musings on everyday life that, much like Miller, interrogate the human condition in its most uncomfortable corners.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords