Opens: March 9
Duration: 125 minutes
Asghar Farhadi, who became the first Iranian to direct an Oscar-winning film with 2011’s A Separation, has two major things going for him. The first is a sure grip on the creation of powerful drama from simple, everyday elements. The second is a fluid directorial style featuring freewheeling camerawork and actor movements and relatively brisk editing that marks an energetic contrast to the more still, contemplative styles of some of his predecessors.
It’s not that his filmmaking is necessarily better than that of older Iranian filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf but that its marked differences in style bring an undeniable freshness.
His latest film begins explosively, with a young couple and their neighbours hurriedly escaping from their violently shaking apartment block after what initially appears to be an earthquake but later proves to be the work of reckless construction diggers.
Despite the danger and general pandemonium, schoolteacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini) stays behind, despite the danger, to help a sick neighbour escape, thus apparently demonstrating his moral character. But that character is tested more severely when he and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) discover their temporary new flat was previously occupied by a “promiscuous” woman – which appears to be code for a sex worker.
Taraneh Alidoosti in The Salesman
When Rana mistakenly opens her door to a stranger (whom the couple later deduce must be one of the former occupant’s clients) and is attacked, their lives start to unravel. Here Emad’s coolness under pressure makes way for a more traditional, flawed interpretation of masculinity. At first he makes the error of not taking seriously enough his wife’s emotional upset, before developing an obsession with tracking down the attacker and taking revenge, against Rana’s wishes. The more his wife tries to dissuade him, the more determined he becomes.
I must admit to sighing when I discovered the film would be woven around scenes of an amateur stage production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in which Emad and Rana are performers, fearing a disruption of narrative rhythm and forced parallels between the play and the main storyline. But these scenes turn out to be relatively brief, and while they initially add little to our understanding of Emad and Rana, there is a powerful moment of transference between the emotions of an actor and those of their stage character that finally makes sense of the device.
Farhadi’s name was in the news last month due to his being effectively swept up in President Trump’s executive order temporarily banning Iranians and citizens of several other predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US. The film has been nominated again in the Academy’s best foreign film category and Farhadi had been due to attend the Los Angeles ceremony.
But he made it clear after the initial order was made that in protest he would now not be attending “even if exceptions were to be made for my trip.” The irony of Farhadi being caught up in such discriminatory policies is that his filmmaking is as far removed from extremist Islam as one could imagine. He remains a deeply humanist filmmaker whose work undermines the mentality of extremism, as The Salesman shows once again.