Acclaimed writer-director Asghar Farhardi returns to his native Iran for the incisive, devastating new drama The Salesman. Though The Salesman sometimes lacks the sharp-edged focus and dramatic momentum of Farhardi’s breakthrough films, 2011’s A Separation and 2013’s The Past, Farhardi continues his examination of Iranian social codes and the gradual breakdown of a doomed marriage.
The Salesman opens with an uncharacteristically tense sequence for Farhadi, who is perhaps best known for his more patient observations of domestic breakdown. After their apartment suddenly collapses, a young Tehran couple, Emad (Shabab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), are forced to relocate to a new apartment, which they discover was previously inhabited by a reputed sex worker. In a case of mistaken identity, a client of the home’s former inhabitant assaults Rana, and her husband is left to grapple with his thirst for vengeance against the unknown assailant—regardless of the fact his wife insists on forgiving her attacker.
The couple brings this domestic turmoil to the stage in an amateur production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, acting out the play’s tale of a well-intentioned man tearing his family apart. However, Farhardi’s allusions to the iconic American play in relation to Emad and Rana’s relationship aren’t as integral to the film as its title might suggest. Emad and Rana are comfortably middle class and don’t particularly deal with any of the class issues that define the Miller play. At one point, Farhardi simply abandons the device. Emad breaks character during a performance to rant about the anger he feels for his wife’s attacker and the play largely slips away from the narrative from that point forward. These tangents, while entertaining, can sometimes undercut the more compelling psychological and interpersonal drama of Emad’s struggle to deal with the fallout of his wife’s assault.
Though these sequences are at times tangential to the plot, the framework of this production allows Farhardi to throw his sharpest jabs at Iranian society in The Salesman, aimed at gender roles, the cultural differences between him and his growing American fanbase, and even the infamous Iranian film censorship board. One memorable scene plays with the irony of having a hijab-wearing Muslim woman star in an adaptation of a play about Depression-era prostitution, gambling, and drinking, all of which are illegal in Iran. After a brief detour to Paris with his last film, 2013’s The Past, Farhardi makes a sharp, confident return to his position as one of Iran’s most prominent filmmakers in the international community.
This confidence translates to the screen in The Salesman, starting with the opening images of the film. Farhardi illustrates the first cracks in Emad and Rana’s relationship with physical cracks in the walls of their home: a strikingly literal image from a filmmaker who typically leaves these dynamics as subtext. The framing device, with the two spouses acting out their internal thoughts and anxieties on stage, brings to light Farhardi’s longstanding preoccupation with gender roles in Iranian society. Through their participation in the play, Emad and Rana are able to deal with sensitive topics such as sexual assault and prostitution without the confines of polite society. Hosseini and Alidoosti are particularly skilled at modulating their performances as a reflection of their social circumstances.
As The Salesman progresses, however, Farhardi shifts to subtler, more characteristic territory.
Despite Emad’s best intentions of defending his wife’s agency after her assault, Farhardi expertly demonstrates how his masculine pride and entitlement end up backfiring against the very person he sought to protect in the first place. Emad’s quest for vengeance largely overshadows the experience of the woman at the center of this traumatic experience. For all of Emad’s rage and passion, he is not a particularly gifted detective, and only stumbles his way to a conclusive answer through sheer luck. This revelation leads to a thrilling third act that pushes Emad, and his marriage, to the limit.
The Salesman continues writer-director Asghar Farhardi’s winning streak of tense, well-observed domestic dramas. Though sometimes dragged down by a messy middle section and an overly contrived plot, The Salesman masterfully sets its young lovers on a claustrophobic, all-too inevitable path toward heartbreak and doom.