Politics have a way of intervening in the work of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. Thrust into the current President’s immigration ban debacle, Farhadi has announced that he will not be attending this year’s Academy Awards, for which his latest film, The Salesman, is up for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s a surprising turn of events for someone who seems to studiously avoid political controversy; his films squeak by Iranian government censorship while remaining palatable and propaganda-free for the international festivals. For the sake of his career, Farhadi might have you believe he is apolitical.
Yet politics loom large in The Salesman, sometimes most conspicuously by their absence. Following the husband and wife actor duo Emad and Rana, the film is framed by their Tehran production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” monitored by unseen government censors. The cast and crew make adjustments when necessary, cutting a scene here and there, without too much resentment but rather with confidence that the show will go on.
After their building is damaged, Emad and Rana seek a new home, and arrive in a hopeful yet ill-fated apartment (they later learn that the former resident was a prostitute, or rather, “a woman who lived a wild life”). While Emad is at rehearsal, Rana suffers a horrible assault at the hands of an unknown man. Working within the confines of what’s permissible to show onscreen, Farhadi avoids depictions or discussions of the violence and relies instead on classic tactics to convey suspense and terror: a shower runs, an apartment door slowly opens (nods to Hitchcock), and all we’re left with is bloody feet on the staircase and Rana in the emergency room. We never learn exactly what transpired, but there’s enough interest in the film beyond the gory details, in large part due to the plot’s smooth pacing.
The shockwaves of the incident reverberate slowly. Rana’s psychological trauma is immediate, and she can barely stay in the apartment alone. Emad approaches her condition with a loving husband’s sense of duty, but also human frustration; what can you do when your wife won’t even bathe in the apartment shower? He resumes his life’s activities with relative ease, teaching high school during the day and rehearsing after. Yet gradually, the murmurs of the neighbors get under his skin. Who was the man? Why didn’t they go to the police? Rana doesn’t want to report the crime; in a sly critique of the justice system, she implies that she will be treated insensitively, and possibly blamed for the whole affair. But it becomes too much for Emad to bear. While the play circumvents the censors, Emad circumvents the authorities and decides to take matters into his own hands.
The Salesman doesn’t legitimize Emad’s quest to track down his wife’s attacker, but rather exposes the classic story of male-driven revenge for all of its problems. Weakness is at the core of the macho endeavor, and Emad reveals his own susceptibility to jealousy, social pressures and patriarchal views of women as property. Through his spiral into vengeance, Emad forces his wife to keep reliving her trauma instead of recovering; suddenly, it’s as if Emad believes he is the true victim.
Despite the prominence of Miller’s play, it’s never obvious which character is referenced in the film’s title. The attacker is a likely Willy Loman sub-in, someone whose family reputation would be badly tainted by the revelation of his true nature. And certainly the specter of the prostitute tenant, a saleswoman of sorts, hangs above the entire film. But in the end it’s Emad, with his misguided belief that revenge will bring about any closure or satisfaction, who best embodies the play’s themes of delusion.
If Farhadi’s filmmaking talent gives new complexity to a tale we’ve seen before, then the actors’ performances take it even further. As Rana, Taraneh Alidoosti captures the distressed survivor with deep sincerity, damaged but struggling not to let the unfortunate affair wholly consume her. But it is Shahab Hosseini as Emad who forges across the film’s emotional spectrum, transitioning believably from a kindly teacher to an irascible coworker, from a supportive husband to one who can’t realize he has become his own marriage’s biggest threat. His eyes burning with tears, he conveys feelings of fury, vindication and regret all at once. Just as the story of Rana’s assault becomes Emad’s own, the film belongs to Hosseini.
Farhadi won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film with A Separation, and on a surface level much of the territory is the same: the twisty Tehran apartment buildings, the shabby yet comfortable interiors, the gaping neighbors. But as an exploration of a marriage’s undoing, the scope of The Salesman is different. A Separation highlighted the contrast between middle and lower-class Iran, tracing the power struggles at the root of marital strife that only a more privileged couple could afford to have. Like Simin and Nader of A Separation, Emad and Rana are educated and economically stable, but the gender politics at play are ones that overlook class lines: namely, man’s age-old feelings of entitlement and ego.