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Salesman, TheIran 2016
Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Running time 125 minutes
Synopsis: Emad (Shahab Hossieni) and his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), are part of an amateur Tehrani theatre group staging a Farsi production of Arthur Miller’s 'Death of a Salesman'. When she is attacked in their home Emad becomes obsessed with finding the culprit.
As writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman won Best Screenplay at Cannes as well as this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film it would seem that I am missing something for even while appreciating its intriguing story I was unconvinced of the film's overall merits.
Farhadi won the 2012 Best Foreign Language Film with A Separation, a film which offered a dramatically satisfying account of a marriage break-down combined with a revealing insight into modern day Iran. The Salesman also centres on a marriage under duress, a condition nicely anticipated in the opening scene in which the couple's apartment is destabilized by adjacent earthworks, windows fracturing and walls cracking. Similarly the film comments (as much as it is able to) on contemporary Iran. But this time Farhadi’s handling of his material is far less lucid and immediate.
Partly this is due to the director’s more theatre-like approach which is announced in a prologue which shows an unmade double bed on a stage lit by a single spotlight. Although using a similar realist style with lots of handheld camera in confined spaces, the relationship between the leads is far less emotionally dynamic than in A Separation where a pivotal incident exacerbated an already well-established conflict between its two principals.
The equivalent incident in The Salesman appears to be the cause of the rift between the, admittedly undemonstrative, couple. But Farhardi purposively does not show us the incident and keeps us ignorant of its real nature due to Rana’s persistent refusal to talk to Emad about it, let alone report it to the police by whom, we understand, she would no doubt be blamed. She appears to be so traumatized that we suspect that she may have been raped but not only don’t we know, her silence leaves the narrative in the hands of Emad, his desire for justice/revenge and his search for the culprit.
The resulting one-sidedness notwithstanding, all this is depicted with credibility until Emad tracks down the perp - surprisingly easily as it transpires – who despite his persistent lying seems physically incapable of raping Rana, indeed of doing much at all. It is an incongruity that seems so transparently obvious that one looks for another agenda on Farhadi’s part and indeed, Rana’s, unfortunately, without success. The only way I could make sense of things was to conclude that the film is about our propensity for lying or, at least, not speaking the truth - the perp and Babak (Babak Karimi) a fellow thespian who helps Emad and Rana get the flat where the incident occurs, both lie to a greater or lesser degree as does, seemingly, Rana.
This leads us to the second major stumbling block of Farhardi’s film and the question of the significance of Miller’s 'Death of a Salesman' to the main story. Although the film’s prologue implies some kind of analogy between the play and the filmed story (especially so given the film’s title), bar some very broad thematic communalities to do with lying and the social construction of identity there doesn’t really appear to be any. Emad is a stubborn male but that’s about all that he shares with Willy Loman although, as there is no internal evidence for it, to know even this the film's audience has to be familiar with the play, something which seems less than likely for an Iranian, if not an English-speaking, audience.
The film closes with Emad and Rana in make-up as Willy and his wife but whether to suggest that their marriage has become play-acting or that they have been aged by the trauma that they have been through is not apparent. Nor for that matter is what Miller’s play would mean to a contemporary Tehrani audience. (On the other hand we see Emad discussing with his class of high school students a short story, 'The Cow', by Gholem-Hossein Sa’edi, a leading Persian 20th-century writer and showing them a filmed version of it. The students pay no attention to it but they do turn up to see Emad’s performance in Miller's play. The significance of this contrast is never explained). To make such a pointed choice of an English language play then do so little with it (except to note the government’s censoring of it) seems perverse.
It is possible that these nagging questions wouldn’t be an issue for an Farsi audience, less schooled in the conventions of English language narrative cinema and more aware of Fahardi's references but then that doesn’t explain the Cannes and Academy awards (less questionably, Hossieni won a Best Actor award at Cannes although Alidoosti who is equally as good, did not win the female equivalent).
Stylistically the film is of a piece with A Separation but if you are expecting more of the same dramatically, cool your jets. Then again, perhaps I really am missing something.