When Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s latest film, The Salesman, was announced as part of last year’s Cannes lineup, very little information about it was initially made available. There were indications that the title might refer to Arthur Miller’s landmark play Death Of A Salesman, but little else. That one proffered detail turned out to be at once accurate and misleading. Death Of A Salesman does indeed figure into the story, as the film’s main characters, a married couple, are playing Willy and Linda Loman in an amateur production. On the whole, however, this starkly confrontational melodrama has more in common with the Charles Bronson classic Death Wish, even if it’s angry words rather than bullets that go whizzing across the screen.
The trouble begins with literal cracks in the foundation. Emad (Shahab Hosseini), who teaches by day and acts by night, is forced, along with wife and fellow thespian, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), to quickly find a new place to live when nearby construction causes their apartment building to start crumbling around them. The new apartment they secure was vacated so recently that the previous tenant’s belongings are still piled in one room, but that’s just a minor irritation—at least until people start showing up looking for the previous tenant, and it becomes abundantly clear that she was a sex worker. Moralistic objections are one thing, but it’s quite another when a former client, buzzed in by Rana (who assumes it’s Emad), assaults her so violently that she winds up at the hospital getting stitches. Emad’s subsequent obsession with finding the man responsible is exacerbated by Rana’s overwhelming feeling of panic whenever she’s home alone. Meanwhile, they’re both still struggling to portray equally powerful emotions onstage almost every night.
Farhadi (A Separation, The Past, About Elly) is much too skilled a dramatist to draw overly blunt parallels between Miller’s play and his own story. Instead, he uses Emad’s and Rana’s immersion in the theater as a means of calling attention to the roles people assign themselves in everyday life. That’s especially true of Emad, who responds to Rana’s assault (the nature of which is left somewhat murky, apart from her head injury) with an aggression, and a sense of himself having been wronged, that seems less a previously hidden aspect of his personality than an effort to embody a stereotypically masculine ideal. Hosseini, a Farhadi regular—he played the caretaker’s angry husband in A Separation—does a magnificent job of delineating Emad’s descent into not so much madness as a simulacrum of madness, which is its own kind of madness. Alidoosti, so terrific in About Elly’s title role, turns in an affecting portrait of posttraumatic anxiety.
Still, the real star here is Farhadi, who remains peerless at orchestrating fearsomely complex moral dilemmas from what seem like innocuous circumstances and continues to grow as a low-key visual stylist, with a sharp eye for both cluttered and spare environments. By his insanely high standards, The Salesman is a lesser work, in part because its view of women seems a little retrograde, at least to American progressives: The sex worker, who’s never seen, gets implicitly blamed for the whole kerfuffle, and the climactic showdown with the man who assaulted Rana is resolved in a way that could be perceived as a defense of “men just can’t help themselves” nonsense. But it’s hard to get too worked up about such lapses in the moment, because Farhadi painstakingly builds The Salesman to a pitch of intensity that becomes almost too distressing to watch. He’s definitely not a dime a dozen.