(PG-13, 2:05) In Persian, English and French with English subtitles
Asghar Farhadi’s films, whether it’s “A Separation,” “The Past” or his newest, “The Salesman,” stay close to domestic life. The concentration is intense; and the results are surprising, always surprising, in their power. Farhadi seems incapable of shooting a boring scene.
The film, a best foreign film Oscar nominee from Iran, is universal, and yet specific. It deals with human emotions. But it also reveals, in passing, what it’s like to live in Tehran, and in a patriarchal Islamic culture. Basically, husbands and wives act like husbands and wives, but outside the circle of marriage, a woman’s rights are limited.
The film starts with a mass evacuation. A man wakes up in the morning and finds that everyone in his apartment building is running down the stairs with only the few possessions they can easily carry. The building is in danger of collapse. He and his wife flee, and have to find a new place. They take an apartment owned by a friend, who happens to be in their theater group.
The film’s title, “The Salesman,” takes its name from “Death of a Salesman,” the Arthur Miller play that the husband (Shahab Hosseini) and wife (Taraneh Alidoosti) are starring in. He plays Willy Loman, and she plays Linda Loman, his wife. Farhadi gives us a number of scenes from the play, some in rehearsal, some before small audiences, over the course of the film. But any connection between the Miller play and the rest of the film is tenuous. On the plus side, it does establish the husband and wife as artists, and gives them a circle of acquaintance.
This is what the young couple doesn’t know about their apartment: It was previously rented by a prostitute, and one day, while the husband is out, one of the prostitute’s clients shows up and assaults the young wife. The rest of the movie deals with the fallout from this assault, the effect on the woman’s sense of security, on the marriage, and on the husband’s sense of himself and his own responsibility.
If this were an American film, the course of action would be pretty clear. The couple would go to the police, and the assailant would be found fairly quickly. But getting the authorities involved in Iran is risky. For a woman, it means being subjected to interrogation and possible accusation, so it’s not worth it. However, this means never achieving closure, no feeling of security for the woman and, for the man, the demeaning sense of being unable to protect his wife.
How this weighs on the marriage and how this gradually transforms each of the partners are Farhadi’s areas of concern. If there’s a connection between the Miller play and the film, it’s that both Willy Loman and this Iranian husband have a conception of what it means to be a man. This conception cannot be dislodged by the wife, no matter the consequences. She can only stand and witness the husband’s torments, even as she goes through her own.
Hosseini and Alidoosti are superb, with rich internal lives that give depth to their characters’ actions — and these characters are indeed active. Though much of the movie is about the psychological effects of a single violent act, this is not a story that stays entirely in the mind. The last half hour is as dramatic as anything in any film currently playing.
Farhadi might just win an Oscar for “The Salesman,” but he won’t be at the ceremony, as he announced, after Iranians and the people of six other countries were banned from traveling to the United States.