(Asghar Farhadi, 2016)
The Salesman screens at the AMC River East 21 on Sunday, October 16 at 5:45PM and Wednesday, October 19 at 6:00PM. For additional ticketing information, refer to the Chicago International Film Festival website here.
I don’t consider Asghar Farhadi to be among our Great Filmmakers even if I consider him to be a Great Writer. As much as I admire A Separation, the remainder of his work, which has thankfully been re-released following his international success, remains so deeply engrained within his dramatist sensibilities that I never can move beyond their theatrical qualities; his work feels more at home on the stage. Despite possessing a proficient formal vocabulary he more or less becomes a slave to his text.
Yet being a brilliant playwright with a modicum of formal know-how can yield positive results and such is the case with The Salesman. What makes The Salesman so intriguing is Farhadi’s blunt acceptance of his theatrical aspirations, setting the film against the backdrop of a staged version of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”. The Willy Loman of Farhadi’s text is played by Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a mild-mannered schoolteacher. He shares the stage with his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who plays the role of Linda Loman for the local production. They are in dire need of a new apartment following the near collapse of their current residence, shaken up at night, as the building appears to be on the verge of collapse.
It’s a remarkable sequence that signals the dramatic allure of Farhadi’s work: we’re startled by a calamitous event where we have little to no understanding of the how and why of it all. We witness the walls crack, the shrill sound of neighbors attempting to evacuate the premises, and close in on the moment of revelation, as Emad peers out the window and sees an excavator turning the ground and rollicking the foundation below them.
The mystery of The Salesman sees the couple find a new apartment but ultimately fall victim to the former tenant’s history, whereupon Rana is the victim of assault. This prompts Emad’s quest for vengeance, which is equal parts thrilling as it is practical. Emad’s, much like Willy Loman, is an everyman with a limited set of resources who takes it upon himself to find Rana’s assailant, despite her protest. Like Loman, there’s a distinct sense of personal betrayal in Emad’s actions, wherein he’ll sacrifice his moral integrity for vengeance. It requires a Herculean effort of self-delusion for Emad to rationalize that his actions are justified, especially as the film reaches its somber conclusion.
Like with Farhadi’s other moral puzzles, The Salesman is a rich conversation piece, something that’s worth picking apart and piecing back together. The one thread that I found most intriguing is how the film’s end mirrors Miller’s text. There may not be a literal suicide in The Salesman, but one can argue that a spiritual one occurs that reverberates throughout the picture, as Emad’s moral integrity begins to wear away when confronted with the opportunity to enact vengeance. Which brings me back to the opening sequence of the picture, whereby the near collapse of an apartment complex is mirrored in the fragile social dynamic between Emad, Rana, and the assailant. Returning to the solitude of their condemned apartment, the three spar in what’s one of Farhadi’s most impressive displays of his theatrical sensibilities. Even if Farhadi rarely leaves me impressed with his visual capacities, the depths of his dramatic intuition are second to none.