2016 AFI FILM FEST: Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman” is another turbulent familial drama that’s among the very best in the auteur’s oeuvre. Pushing viewers’ stress level to peak capacity, the film addresses the moral consequences of retaliating the cruelest form of dishonor. Issues of sexual assault, female agency, male entitlement and violence are meticulously probed. While the Oscar-winning Iranian director is cognizant of his setting, “The Salesman” asserts itself as a universal tale of human tragedy. By the time the film ends, not even a handkerchief can wipe every droplet of sweat and tears amassed.
Having lost their apartment to structural collapse in an opening sequence broiling with apocalyptic tonality, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) make do with a new abode of unknown history. The couple’s friend and housing liaison, Babak (Babak Karimi), assures them that the place is suitable. However, the previous tenant refuses to meet the pair or pick up her belongings. Emad and Rana find this behavior unsettling, but their burning suspicions are put on hold. For now, the couple must focus on nailing their respective roles in a local stage production of “Death of a Salesman.” What they don’t anticipate is the prior tenant’s past forcibly shattering Emad and Rana’s peaceful existence.
While home alone preparing a shower, Rana hears the buzzer go off and assumes Emad must have forgotten something. In the most chilling shot on record this year, the camera lingers on the door as it forebodingly creaks open. The scene then cuts to black; upon return, Emad discovers Rana disrobed and beaten within an inch of her life. The aftermath of the crime finds Rana coping with the process of moving on, while Emad refuses his wife’s concession. Emad’s rage expresses itself vociferously and without hope of dissipation. The only way to quell his anger is to enact the same degree of pain Rana experienced on the perpetrator himself.
For quite a duration of the film, audiences aren’t privy to the identity of Rana’s attacker. The extent to which Rana is abused is also withheld. In doing so, Farhadi effectively allows both the audience and Emad to subconsciously construct a narrative and face of evil for motivation. As Farhadi demonstrates, society’s instinct is to heighten a true crime event and take ownership of it. The victim – in this case, Rana – is forgotten and has no say in how she wants justice enforced. Such transfer of power exposes how men view their spouses: as property whose dishonor and pain is equally theirs to burden. In order to combat such degradation (emasculation in reality), the man anoints himself the primary enforcer of retribution. More brutal in doling out torture than Hugh Jackman in “Prisoners,” Emad threatens to become the very monster he despises.
Cinematography that masterly involves with claustrophobic proximity, “The Salesman” is a volcanic eruption of intense human entanglement. However, its attempts to draw parallels between Arthur Miller’s play and Emad’s ethically dire path are more superfluous than inspired. Earning awards for its lead actor and script, “The Salesman” is every bit the foreign language contender Cannes proclaimed. As Iran’s prospective representative for Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Oscars, “The Salesman” is not to be neglected.
Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman” is distributed by Amazon Studios and will release on Jan. 27, 2017.