Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) refused to attend this year’s Academy Award ceremony out of respect for his country after the unconstitutional — and fortunately short-lived — Muslim ban. His absence was more powerful than any speech could ever be and a cold reminder that if such nationalist-fueled isolationist policy is eventually implemented, the United States will forgo the enriching work of many foreign artists. A country without the contributions of a diverse array of artists would be unstimulating and non-innovative.
His newest movie, “The Salesman,” continues his streak of enthralling commentaries on Iranian society, particularly about women. Although burdened by strict Iranian censorship, he still manages to tell stories about hardship and suppression. Iranians are not the only ones suffering from the repression of women, and in many ways, his movies are universal.
“The Salesman” is about a married couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini, “About Elly”) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti, “About Elly”), and the events following their recent move to a new apartment. Throughout the movie, the couple also costars as Willy and Linda Lomain in a reproduction of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” The movie begins on a frantic and anxious note as Rana and Emad are forced to abandon their apartment while it’s literally collapsing. A fellow actor, Babak (Babak Karimi, “A Separation”), introduces them to their next apartment, where a prostitute with a bad reputation has yet to fully move out her belongings. One night, while showering, Rana is assaulted by a man who presumably believed she was the old tenant. When Emad returns, he is shocked to find an empty bathroom covered in blood.
The remainder of the movie focuses on Emad’s rage and Rana’s terror following the crime. “The Salesman” is a revenge story, but in a convoluted way. Although Rana was the one assaulted, the story is told through Emad’s perspective and centers on his desire to avenge the assault of his wife. Through Emad, viewers are exposed to some of the unequal dynamics between the couple. The themes of repression aren’t so obvious at all moments, but very unsettling once this becomes evident. As Emad’s increasingly possessive drive is revealed, his intentions become less and less clear. Ultimately, it feels like he is seeking revenge on behalf of himself, a selfish drive rather than a defense of his beloved wife.
Shabab Hosseini takes on a difficult task and plays the role of both a protagonist and antagonist. Emad is loveable at many moments, like when he’s teaching or watching over a young child, but controversial at others. The way he treats Rana after she shows symptoms of PTSD is despicable, and the viewer is at a constant conflict between loving him and hating him. Overall, Hosseini’s performance is one of the strongest aspects of the well-rounded movie.
“The Salesman” ends in a way that is potentially polarizing; its unpredictability is arguably the most satisfying part of the movie. Actor Farid Sajadhosseini, playing a minor but critical role, is only in the movie for the last twenty-or-so minutes, but is captivating the entire time.
The movie leaves audiences ruminating about so many themes and symbols that it almost requires a second viewing to fully understand its meaning. Its complexity could be a turnoff for someone expecting a simpler and traditional story. However, fans of Miller’s play will love analyzing the parallels between the two works.