Asghar Farhadi wowed audiences and critics with A Separation in 2011. Although his next film, French-set The Past, was less successful, the Iranian director’s latest offering was highly anticipated. While lacking the intensity of A Separation, this is an intelligent and interesting film.
With The Salesman Farhadi returns to Iran and to the familiar theme of relationships. It is a film full of symmetry and cross references, the most obvious being his use of Death of a Salesman. The film opens with preparations being made for a theatre performance of Arthur Miller’s play, as props are moved and lighting changed. Throughout the scenes at the theatre, we often view the action from the booth, the technician’s reflection seen in the glass in an eerie red light. It is almost as though this were Farhadi watching his actors and his film emerge like Prospero directing the action in The Tempest, although it could equally be a reference to Yadollah Najafi, the film’s sound recorder who died during shooting.
As the props are shifted, the next scene opens on an apartment building, which is doing quite a bit of shifting itself. This is no earthquake, but is a man made disaster. As the residents flee we meet our two leads. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) helps a neighbour downstairs and it won’t be the last time we see a man being carried on another man’s back down those stairs.
Emad is a schoolteacher by day and the lead actor in a production of the play by night. His wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) is also performing, as Willy Loman’s wife Linda, along with a cast of entertaining actors which includes the friendly Babak (Babak Karimi). Forced to leave their cracked and precarious apartment, Babak offers them a recently vacated flat. Yet this act of kindness leads to an event which will see bigger fissures appearing between Emad and Rana. When Rana is attacked in their new home, Emad seeks the assailant and his obsession risks creating a rift that could cause his relationship with Rana to crumble.
As we watch Emad losing his grip along with his moral compass, so the action continues on stage. But there are plenty of characters playing a role: Babak is not as affable as he seems and there are some hammy performances by other characters trying to mask past misdemeanours. Emad, initially so kind and beloved of his pupils, also reveals a different persona lurking below the surface. All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.
The scenes with the teenage boys at Emad’s school are wonderful: the pupils your usual mix of teens the world over and the school, though a little shabby, a warm and vibrant place. Another excellent performance is that of a child who comes to stay with Emad and Rana. As we saw in The Past, Farhadi has a great directorial touch with his young cast.
As with A Separation, the film deals with issues pertaining to Iranian society, but in a peripheral way. There are a few issues with censors who want to cut the play. There is also the question of the police, who are never called to deal with Rana’s attack. Everyone agrees there is little point making a complaint, and Rana’s reputation could be put at risk. There are parallels here with two other films in competition: both Brillante Mendoza and Cristian Mungiu deal with the ineptitude or corruption of the police. But this story is about a man and a woman and how they cope with the aftermath of an assault, a story universal in its theme. Like the theatre troupe they portray, the two leads and Karimi are regular players in Farhadi’s films. They are all excellent here, particularly Alidoosti. We finish where we started, back at the theatre as Rana and Emad silently prepare to perform. It is for the audience to decide where the action goes from here.
Although the film loses its constraint and risks veering in melodrama towards the end, overall it is a restrained and masterful work with two strong performances at its heart.