Strong Performances and Storytelling are ‘The Salesman’s’ Selling Point

Courtesy of Filmiran
Courtesy of Filmiran

While they may not fill our hearts with joy like pompous musicals or make us swoon like sappy romance movies, tragedies reveal our common flaws and convey, painfully so, moral lessons. The Salesman, written and directed by Iranian-born Asghar Farhadi, constructs a tragic tale that delineates the consequences of  pride while uniting large audiences.

The Salesman begins with trouble for Iranian couple Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) after their apartment building is deemed inhospitable after being severely damaged by nearby construction. The subsequent house-hunt that follows is a far cry from pretentious American HGTV shows: hearing about the couple’s situation, Babak (Babak Karimi), a friend in Emad and Rana’s acting troupe, offers them residence in a dilapidated flat. This apartment’s foundation is stable, which is already a step up from Emad and Rana’s old dwellings. The couple prematurely counts themselves lucky to have a safe place to stay, unaware that the former resident’s past makes this apartment even more dangerous than their last.

The tragedy intensifies as Emad and Rana act in a production of Death of a Salesman, scenes of which are interlaced with the couple’s real-life tribulations. Incorporating Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work is a brazen move on Farhadi’s part; his connections to Death of a Salesman are interwoven so that The Salesman still retains its own story. I was initially skeptical of Farhadi’s plan to link a young, childless Iranian couple to a 1940s American family, but the stories feel symbiotic. The Salesman compliments the American classic instead of exploiting its material.

Emad and Rana revive Death of a Salesman onstage while Farhadi has adapted it to the contemporary Iranian setting. In the original playWilly Loman was overwhelmed by the competition of developing America, and in The Salesman, Emad lives in a similarly congested climate — the city of Tehran. Farhadi creates a tense, suffocating setting for his protagonist; Emad lives in close quarters with his judgmental neighbors. At work, he teaches a class of rambunctious teenage boys. The film’s landscape does not provide relief as lackluster apartment buildings cram the skylines, while busy streets fill Emad’s commutes with further stressors. Both Salesmans explore the consequences that arise when common men are pushed to the brink by their imposing environments.

As in Death of a Salesman, the foundations of the protagonist’s marriage are shaken by the haunting presence of a promiscuous woman who was, in The Salesman, the previous tenant at the flat. An unknown male relation to the previous tenant  visits the flat and assaults Rana while she is home alone. Rana sustains injuries, but the most detrimental effects of this attack are to Emad’s ego. As more people become involved in the ordeal, Emad becomes paranoid over what people think of his management of the situation. Much like Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman,Emad’s fatal flaw is his honor.  His lines as Willy in the play therefore assume a double meaning. As time passes, Rana begins to heal, yet Emad’s humiliation only deepens, leading him on a destructive quest of avenging his own pride, against Rana’s wishes.

Farhadi creates complex characters for Hosseini and Alidoosti, who are extremely successful in their roles as Emad and Rana. Iranian cinema does not feature physical affection; nonetheless, Hosseini and Alidoosti do not need such cues to communicate the emotional shifts in their relationship. Hosseini’s progression from stable to unhinged is well-paced and intensifies as he grows closer to finding his wife’s attacker, while Alidoosti is just as accomplished in her role, balancing her reverberating fragility from the attack with emotional strength as she defends her moral beliefs. Against the chaotic and bleak backdrop of Tehran, Hosseini and Alidoosti’s performances are focused and electrifying.

Farhadi has made a promising pitch for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars with The Salesman this awards season, an accolade he won in 2012 for his film A Separation. The themes of instability in The Salesman change from the physical state of the apartments to the psychological imbalance of its characters. The conclusion of the film leaves viewers with philosophical questions proving Farhadi’s talent for creating thought-provoking films. The Salesman does not flaunt flashy costumes or dazzling special effects; its complex plot and powerful performances make it a thoroughly compelling film.

Grade: A-