Review by © Jane Freebury
The films of writer-director Asghar Farhadi are taut, tense, obliquely scripted and immaculately performed. His latest film in similar vein won best foreign film Oscar this year, just five years since the director won the same award for A Separation.
I wouldn’t say that his meticulous work is the most cinematic. There is sparing though powerful use of all the expressive elements of his chosen medium, yet he is still one of the best around. Social constraint and strict censorship in Iran have served him well, too.
The Salesman was screening in Tehran when I was a tourist there last year. Our guide said it was doing well, though she seemed a little puzzled by its success. It may not be the sort of entertainment that the young and unattached would go out of their way to see.
Marriage is a central motif for Farhadi, and in the world that he has created in A Separation, The Past and now The Salesman, it is a difficult and pretty joyless business. This is a filmmaker with a gift like Ingmar Berman’s for creating immersive experience, pitching his audiences deep into the bracken of complicated, compromised interpersonal relationships. It is up to audiences to make what they will of this microcosm and its wider social significance.
The Salesman opens at the theatre where Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are the lead actors in an amateur production of Death of a Salesman. Garish neon signs and an unmade double bed turn out to be theatre props. If there is some resonance between the disillusionment and betrayal of dreams in Arthur Miller’s iconic study of the mid-20th century US and the present-day in Iran, it is obliquely stated, but damn intriguing all the same.
All of a sudden, a life change for the couple. Deep cracks appear in the walls and windows of their apartment and they are forced to move out and into another apartment. It doesn’t have a bulldozer digging next door, but turns out to be a lot less secure. The previous tenant has not fully vacated, and has left a bedroom locked, filled with her belongings. A visitor who calls is expecting that she will still be there.
Meanwhile, in the scenes of Emad and the teenage boys in his literature class we are on reassuring solid ground. This interlude is a welcome window on his character outside the home. At school, he is genial and kind, an effective and popular teacher who can be a buddy to his students but knows where to draw the line. It is a significant insight into his character that we don’t get for Rana.
The former tenant in Emad and Rana’s new home ‘lived a wild life’ – code for prostitute. Emad realises that the couple has been betrayed through information withheld, but it is already too late. Without any knowledge of previous comings and goings, Rana has no need for caution, and she lets in an unidentified person who she believes to be her husband, then proceeds to the bathroom for a shower.
Rana is assaulted by this stranger, an attack that is neither seen, heard nor explicitly defined. How could it be otherwise? We only see she is severely traumatised.
Unwilling to allow the details of the assault to become public, she refuses Emad’s request they go to the police. The rift that opens between them only widens with Rana in retreat and Emad tracking down the assailant, impatient for justice. Rana even accuses him of seeking revenge. Complication and compromise follow when the attacker turns out to be someone with vulnerabilities of his own.
If the difficulties this couple face cannot be fully appreciated outside Iran, The Salesman explores territory that can, while rape is one of the least reported of crimes. With handheld camera, a modest set, excellent actors and a sensitive and intelligent screenplay, Farhadi has covered some very difficult territory and got us all thinking.
Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle