While not as tightly constructed as some of his more recent works, Oscar nominated Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman is still a worthy, dramatically satisfying effort that benefits greatly from an unspoken sense of timeliness. The film has been nominated at this year’s Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, but because of the travel ban imposed by the Trump administration, Farhadi, a Muslim living in Iran, can’t attend the ceremonies. I don’t think the film is good enough to win that award (although a victory for Farhadi would certainly send a message), but the fact that he’s being exiled from anything celebrating his achievements makes The Salesman drip with a delicious kind of tragic irony that makes it a vital film.
While preparing for his leading role as Willy Loman in a community theatre production of Death of a Salesman alongside his real life wife (Taraneh Alidoosti), high school teacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini, who won Best Actor at Cannes for his performance here) has to scramble to find a new apartment when theirs is suddenly condemned. One of his fellow cast members graciously offers a rental property he owns without telling the couple who the previous tenant was. The past tenant’s life ends up having a violent impact on the husband and wife, with the wife suffering a great trauma and the husband unravelling and becoming consumed by thoughts of vengeance.
There’s some obvious metaphor that The Salesman dabbles in without taking into account the parallels between Farhadi’s story and the play the characters’ lives are built around. There’s the crumbling house. There are plenty of shots of locked gates that people can’t pass through with ease (or sometimes with too much ease). There’s a lot of talk about Iranian censorship when it comes to dealing with difficult subjects, both on stage and off. That’s more than enough to tell what eventually becomes a slow burning, low key revenge film, and the biggest downside to The Salesman is Farhadi’s stringent adherence to creating parallels to Arthur Miller’s play. The original story elements play far better, for the most part.
There’s a disjointed feeling between Farhadi’s literary allegory and The Salesman’s pulpier elements. He can only elevate one of these elements at a time, leading to a film that starts and stops rather than flows. The comparison between Emad and Willy Loman is also skin deep at best, extending only as far as making sure the audience knows that the husband is an ineffective modern male under extreme stress. It’s not a lot, and the two halves don’t go together as well as Farhadi probably thinks they do.
As it goes on, however, The Salesman becomes a more conventional film the more Emad grows weary and learns about his wife’s assaulter. This conventionality leads the characters to do some things that strain logical credibility. The plot becomes somewhat convenient, and there’s a distinct feeling of manipulation that Farhadi’s more recent films lack. It becomes a film that seems to recognize its own flaws, and feels unsure of where it all wants to head.
Despite that, these quibbles seem minor when viewing the work as a whole. Farhadi (A Separation, The Past) remains masterful when it comes to dramatic escalation, and the climax hits with an emotional, if not entirely logical impact. The pairing of Alidoosti and Hosseini is also inspired, and the cast makes up for some of the material’s weaker leanings.
Having watched The Salesman again this week for the first time since the fall, I can say that Farhadi was onto something that I missed before; something that sadly foretold of the world’s current political climate. There’s no shortage of irony surrounding the fact that Farhadi won’t be able to support a film explicitly about breakdowns in communication and the mistrust of one’s neighbours at the Oscars this year. Those bits of subtext now ring the loudest and clearest, even if the story goes in some strange directions.
The Salesman opens at Varsity Cinemas and Empress Walk in Toronto and at 5th Avenue in Vancouver on Friday, February 3. It expands to other Canadian cities in the coming weeks.
Check out the trailer for The Salesman: