Writer-director Asghar Farhadi has quickly vaulted himself into the realm of today’s top filmmakers by drawing from the well of domestic disharmony. His 2011 film, A Separation, received an Oscars nod for best original screenplay and took home the trophy for Best Foreign Language Film. His subsequent films, The Past and About Elly—the latter filmed before A Separation—also dealt with relationships. They did not get any love from the Academy, but their reviews were still glowing.
Farhadi’s latest, The Salesman, has again caught Oscars voters’ eyes, and though it is the most imperfect of his works thus far, Farhadi’s worst is still pretty good. (Whether the Iranian Farhadi and his cast will be able to attend the ceremony thanks to the political climate is a different issue.)
The Salesman is a story about the aftermath of violence, but more crucially it reflects the seemingly universal urge of men to take action while women merely ask for their partner’s ear and emotional support. Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti, About Elly) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini, About Elly and A Separation) are a young couple who are performing in a local production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. At the beginning of the film, they must flee their apartment building, which is threatening to collapse thanks to nearby construction. (The metaphorical foreshadowing is hard to miss.) One of their fellow thespians (Babak Karimi) is a landlord who happens to have a vacant flat, however, so they temporarily set up house there, despite the former tenant still having her belongings locked up in one of the bedrooms.
That tenant, whom neighbors describe as living “a wild life,” avoids coming back for her stuff for reasons unknown. And on the first night Rana and Emad are to spend in the apartment, Rana is attacked after a show while Emad is picking up groceries. She’d assumed it was her husband who rang their doorbell, so with her fingers full of soap, she just buzzes him in, unlocks the door, and returns to the bathroom. In a chilling moment, the door opens slowly with the visitor unseen. Other tenants find her bloodied and unconscious after hearing her cries.
The Salesman proceeds quite differently than its fellow Best Foreign Language picture nominee, Elle. Both are about rape; in the former, however, the word is never uttered and hardly even alluded to. Like many victims—and one assumes the attitude is even more prevalent in a traditionalist country such as Iran—Rana blames herself for letting the assailant in and feels too humiliated to even talk with her husband, never mind the police, about what happened. (In the background of one scene, there’s even a poster of Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 film Shame.)
Between her unwillingness to tell Emad what happened and her irrational, if understandable, fear and instability, Emad grows increasingly impatient and even cruel, at one point saying, “You could pull yourself together.” It doesn’t seem to occur to him that his wife was sexually assaulted, and as she both clings to him and pushes him away, Emad gives her an ultimatum that they either go to the police or “forget this whole story.”
The Salesman is a curious title for the film, considering that there aren’t any major themes tying this tale to the classic drama. (It’s being marketed under a more appropriate name, The Client, in France.) Compared to Farhadi’s other work, however, the similarities are hard to miss: All involve trauma, whether physical or emotional; all take place largely in cramped spaces; and all intricately ramp up tension through the subtlest of glances, gestures, and line deliveries. You can glean the dynamic between his characters just by looking at the way the actors hold themselves, and both Hosseini and the eminently watchable Alidoosti do fine work.
One Farhadi marker that’s missing—though perhaps for the better—is hysteria, which is especially prevalent in A Separation and The Past. Alidoosti’s Rana is, at most, passive-aggressive toward her husband, while Hosseini’s Emad is forceful yet mostly keeps his emotions in check, even when he finally comes across the man who he believes attacked his wife.
The problem at this point of the film, however, is that its turn is unrealistic; in a seeming attempt to pull an M. Night Shyamalan fake-out, Farhadi chooses a most unlikely assailant, and it’s simply not believable. The couple’s reactions after the man is pinned are curious as well—let’s just say that demonization flies out their high-rise window.
For a portrayal of how a violent act can drive a wedge between a couple, The Salesman delivers. If you’ve got a taste for a satisfying whodunit, however, look elsewhere.
The Salesman opens Friday at Landmark’s Bethesda Row and the Angelika Film Center, and screens Sunday at the National Gallery of Art.