I was already tense during the opening titles of Asghar Farhadi’s latest, The Salesman. Having seen several of his films, I was prepared for something akin to a thriller, or even a pastoral murder mystery, where ordinary domestic mishaps are the catalysts for (or symptoms of) some hefty emotional icebergs about to crack. Farhadi’s narratives, in their taut unfolding, give us an opportunity to examine each character’s moral compass and carry us toward some dark corner of human frailty. And I was not mistaken. From the stunning opening sequence of a building on the verge of collapse, to the skillful layering of a production of Death of a Salesman between scenes of domestic fissure, to the showdown of the last half hour, the film is effective and brutal in its exploration of a couple’s relationship and their relationship to the outside world. A staggering chain of events, all plausible, manages nonetheless to teeter between the ordinary and to the tragic, with the main characters’ vanity, ego, shame, loss, and anger tugging this chain back and forth. As with his most recent films (Le Passé, A Separation, About Elly), the characters’ lives manage to convey a certain kind of predestination even as they are clearly the actors and directors of their tragedies.
It is thus appropriate that the film’s couple, Emad and Rana, play the roles of Willy and Linda Loman in a production of Death of a Salesman. Like Arthur Miller, Farhadi uses domestic settings to convey a general unease with the way things are going in society at large. No matter how high up your apartment walk-up, or how many doors it takes to secure it, the outside always manages to find its way inside. What’s particularly effective (and a source of thrills) is that the menacing outside forces are invisible and yet affect them in the most devastating ways. This includes a yet-to-be constructed building which nonetheless wreaks havoc on their apartment; a previous tenant of their temporary apartment, who menaces them with the presence of her personal things and relationships with her former neighbors; and an unknown assailant, who is closer to the couple than they realize. The tension and narrative thrills serve to keep us on our toes and prevent any feeling of schadenfreude. What would we do if we were a husband trying to avenge an injustice? Which stories do we choose to hide? Mr. Farhadi, a connoisseur of our collective frailty, reminds us that what happens to other people can happen to us too, and so we should practice compassion and forgiveness.
The Salesman (Forushande), dir. Asghar Farhadi, 125 mins. Arte France Cinéma, Doha Film Institute, et al., 2016. In Farsi.
It is Iran’s official entry for the 2017 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
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