The Salesman, the Iranian winner of this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is a drama about what happens when the stress of a crisis makes a marriage weaker, not stronger.
Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti)’s marriage is under strain from the opening scene, when they are woken with news that their apartment building is collapsing. They and their neighbours manage to escape, but they are left homeless. The couple are also playing Willy and Linda Loman in an amateur theatre production of Death of a Salesman, where a fellow cast member offers them a flat to stay. The flat seems promising, apart from the fact that the previous tenant, a prostitute, left her things there. The Salesman is set in Tehran, but captures a universal kind of modern urban dislocation – the perennial struggle to build a home while moving from one overpriced and impersonal rented flat to another. Scenes of Emad at his job teaching literature in a local school show that he is an able and popular teacher, but faces constant minor rebellions from a classroom of lively teenage boys. He is already frustrated at their, to quote Theresa May, ‘just about managing’ station, when their lives are plunged into disaster.
After a performance of the play, Rana is taking a shower when she hears a knock at the door, thinks it’s Emad and opens the door. Emad comes home to find Rana gone and blood smeared in the bathroom. Their neighbours take her to hospital, and she comes home with a head injury, emotionally numb and afraid to enter the bathroom. The Salesman reminded me of Elle – it’s also concerned with the aftermath of an assault and an extra-legal investigation to find the perpetrator – but without that film’s provocative explicitness. I wasn’t sure how much what happened to Rana was meant to be ambiguous, and whether I’d understand what was unspoken more clearly if I was more familiar with Iranian culture and society. What’s clear is that she has experienced some kind of violation from an intrusion by one of the former tenant’s clients. The lingering trauma means her home, the bastion of her and Emad’s marriage, is no longer safe. Most of the cinematography of The Salesman is claustrophobic. Every scene is shot indoors, focused on unglamourous locations and tired, stressed faces, and without the grace of a soundtrack to provide some emotional relief to the tension.
Things are made worse when Emad finds that the intruder, slightly implausibly, left some of his things behind, including car keys that provide a means of tracking him down. The film’s one happy scene – a home-cooked dinner with the adorable son of one of their fellow actors – falls horribly apart when Emad realises that Rana accidentally bought the food with the attacker’s money and insists they can’t eat it. While Emad becomes increasingly driven to find the attacker, he drifts further away from what Rana needs. He seems exasperated by her fearful insistence on not being left alone and difficulty explaining what happened, and hardly shows her any tenderness. He snaps at her “Either report it to the police or forget about it”, ignoring her desire to process her experience in her own time.
In a multi-layered, powerful performance, Hosseini shows how Emad’s genuine love and care for his wife is warped by darker impulses – his existing resentment at his station in life and a vague desire to assuage his own powerlessness with the kind of display of violence toxic masculinity dictates is the best outcome in this situation. I would have liked to see Alidoosti given space to offer more than a glimpse of Rana’s battered psyche, but she imbues her short scenes with heart-wrenching vulnerability and wounded inner strength.
There are no director plot parallels with Death of a Salesman, but both are tragedies of a man whose desire to fulfil the socially-prescribed roles of protector and provider leads to him victimising his wife. In one unnerving scene, Emad’s real-life frustrations come out on stage after Rana has a breakdown. In character as Willy, he begins improvising to cover for her and ends up angrily berating her. The heightened atmosphere of the play lets him express his anger by turning it into a role. The film returns repeatedly to the image of the couple having makeup applied in the dressing room, emphasising that they are putting a mask on to face the world and each other.
Director Asghar Farhadi – who was granted an exemption from Donald Trump’s travel ban from Muslim countries to attend the Academy Awards ceremony, but chose to boycott it on principle – builds up the growing tension with masterful skill, concluding in a gripping extended sequence with the awful inevitability of Greek tragedy. He leaves his ‘good’ characters, especially Emad, hopelessly compromised and his ‘bad’ characters with redeeming gleams of humanity. Even if playing your socially prescribed role feels comforting, you can’t stay in it forever.