In 2012, gifted writer/director Asghar Farhadi delivered the first Iranian film to win an Oscar, the domestic drama “A Separation.” If the fates are just, he will win again this year for his Oscar-nominated seventh feature, “The Salesman.”
It is by any measure a great film, a quiet, yet overwhelmingly intense production that forces us to recalibrate our notion of what suspenseful cinema can mean and do. It turns the hero/victim/villain setup of routine mysteries into a nuanced moral dilemma.
The film’s title refers to the play being staged by its protagonists, a troupe of actors presenting Arthur Miller’s tragic “Death of a Salesman” in Tehran. But as always in Farhadi’s remarkably sophisticated work, there’s much more to be understood. He introduces us to thoroughly defined characters who are not always truthful about their motivations, sometimes because they don’t understand themselves. Like salesmen, they put the best side forward and conceal the flaws.
The story opens in an apartment building beginning to tremble and shift. An excavator next door has weakened the structure’s foundation, sending the tenants fleeing. The crumbling echoes the issues facing the married couple living there.
Shahab Hosseini’s Emad takes charge in the crisis, leading Taraneh Alidoosti’s Rana to safety and helping their neighbors quickly move down the stairs. Emad’s a fine performer onstage, too, bringing a sincere emotional current to his role as Willy Loman. He makes us feel for the downtrodden antihero through his professional finesse rather than hokey button-pushing. In his day job as a boys’ high school drama teacher, he’s admired by every student in his class. He’s effectively playing three different roles here, nailing the nature of the beast each time.
Rana is quieter, withdrawn, playing Willy’s wife in low-key form, while subtly keeping Emad at a distance offstage. They are both good at putting on alternate identities. At home their relationship is a matter of hitting their marks and delivering their scripted lines.
When they relocate into a new apartment, the fissures from the first act encounter a new level of stress. The previous tenant has left behind a shady, troubling history that soon returns. Rana is knocked unconscious after leaving the apartment door unlocked. She doesn’t describe the assault in detail to the police or her husband. She wants it to be forgotten as quickly as possible.
But Emad is unwilling to put the incident to rest. He combs the new apartment, the building and the neighborhood for clues about what happened and who was involved. It is technically the action of a detective, but Farhadi, a master of psychological suggestion, hints that Emad wants to reclaim his role as the strong, protective man of the house. Or, as Rana puts it, he wants revenge, but for his own satisfaction. When he encounters a suspect, events take a heartbreaking turn.
As always in his films, Farhadi’s characters are portrayed with deep human sympathy. These aren’t adventure film cutouts but middle-class adults with money problems, living in a big city where life is messy and people are fallible. The parallels between his world and Miller’s hapless everyman Willy are unspoken but significant.
Relationships that are falling apart are the continuing focus of Farhadi’s downbeat work. That can be interpreted as a discreet social statement about life in post-revolutionary Iran, where artists face ruinous prosecution for openly criticizing the state. Saying what you mean indirectly, through implication rather than direct messaging, is a self-defense tactic there, as it is in many troubled marriages.
Farhadi presents us with three-dimensional chess games that need to be followed on multiple levels. It’s a hard trick for a filmmaker to pull off, and a challenging one for viewers to examine, but great films rarely succeed without complexity.