This year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner, The Salesman, opens with Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), a married couple living in Tehran, having to flee their apartment in the middle of the night because their apartment building has started to collapse. The couple are actors in a theatre company which is currently engaged in a production of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. They rent an apartment through one of their colleagues, and quickly learn that the previous tenant was a prostitute. One night, Rana is attacked by a former client of the prostitute, who panics and leaves his pickup truck behind. The rest of the film follows the fallout of the attack and it affects on Rana, Emad, and everyone they know.
At times a domestic drama, at others a detective story, the film’s shifts in tone and pace is done so seamlessly that it never feels clunky. This is a very rich film, a skilfully crafted piece of work which combines a realistic aesthetic with dramatic symbolism, and electrifying performances. Both Alidoosti and Hosseini are extremely charismatic performers who are able to convey some very complex emotions with the subtlest of movements.
The thematic links to Miller’s play are not immediately apparent, but because the film stayed with me for days after the screening they revealed themselves over time. I have to admit to having only a passing familiarity with Miller’s play – it’s one of those works of literature that I know about through references in other media, but I have never read it or seen it performed. As a result, I can only really theorise about the film’s thematic ties to Death of a Salesman, but I suspect that it has something to do with facades being broken to reveal truth, dramatic tension beneath the surface of domesticity, and living with the ghosts of the past. Another possible thematic link between the play and the film is the idea that a man’s worth is based on his position in life.
Director Asghar Farhadi does not shy away from the use of symbolism: it is not a huge leap to think that the cracks which appear in the apartment building foreshadow the cracks which appear in Emad and Rana’s marriage. The thing that keeps the film from being hammy is the naturalistic performances of the actors and the realism of the cinematography.
There are times when the film feels like a ghost story: certainly, the apartment in which they live is not ‘haunted’ per se, but the couple have to live with previous tenant’s belongings. The attack itself hovers over the characters, but to Farhadi’s credit it never veers into histrionics. It is the way in which everyone tries to deal with and forget the past that the real drama lies.
A rich film full of nuance and implicitness, it is at times very hard to watch and I must admit it took me a while to understand how I felt about The Salesman. It’s stayed with me, just as the ‘ghosts’ in the film and Miller’s play hover over the characters in each respective work.