The Salesman

Asghar Farhadi
Release Year:
Asghar Farhadi
Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi
Academy Awards, USA 2017, Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
Screening Date:
  • 2 Jan 2018
  • Categories:
    Drama, Thriller

    It's 5 years since GFS screened "A Separation", so time for another Farhadi film! An Iranian couple is performing in "Death of a Salesman" and they have just rented a flat where the wife is assaulted, which leaves the husband determined to find the perpetrator despite his wife's traumatized objections. Won Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2017.

    Film Notes

    One of the many reasons that Alfred Hitchcock is arguably the greatest filmmaker of all time — the quintessential filmmaker — is that his spirit and technique infuse the work of so many other directors (maybe all of them). He is, of course, the eternal god of anyone who has ever made a thriller. But he also hovers over those who could hardly be less “Hitchcockian.” A perfect example is the masterly Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi. Farhadi makes dramas of domestic discord that refuse to heighten anything they show you; they are steadfastly observant, unvarnished, specific and real. Yet when we watch a Farhadi film like “A Separation” or “The Past,” or his new one, “The Salesman,” we’re seduced, almost by a kind of invisible reverse trickery, into a situation of clear-eyed naturalism, except that they also start to realize we’re caught in a gathering storm, and it has everything to do with the shifting interior sands of the people onscreen. We’re caught up in something that can only be called suspense, and it’s galvanizing, but the suspense hinges purely on what’s going on in the characters’ hearts and minds. “The Salesman,” rather uncharacteristically for Farhadi, opens on a note of stark cataclysm. An apartment building in Tehran appears to be ready to collapse, and the residents, who include the film’s married protagonists, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), are rushing out of there as if for their very lives. In the end, the building stays standing, but it’s a wreck, with gas leaks and giant cracks in the walls. Emad and Rana are forced to find another apartment, and they quickly do, moving into a shabby but spacious flat built onto the roof of a nearby building. But the queasy karma of that nearly imploding structure carries over to the new place. The former tenant leaves half her stuff there and refuses to come get it. When they ask why, the answer hinges on the fact that she is, as it is euphemistically phrased in Tehran, a woman of many male companions (in other words, a prostitute). The inconvenience nags, and then something happens that nudges the annoyance into darker terrain. Rana, home alone, hears the intercom, and buzzes in the person she assumes is Emad, only he isn’t. Later on, Emad returns, and as he walks up the stairs, he sees bloody footprints, and inside the apartment he finds Rana, who has been struck in the head by an intruder while she was in the shower. At the hospital, she receives stitches, and her prognosis is fine. Except that everything is not fine. Stuff happens, and innocent people can get attacked in a big city, but the nearly random assault on Rana undercuts her well being. She is frightened … but she is also defensive. She wants Emad, a high school literature teacher, to stay home from school … but she also wants to be left alone. She’s a bundle of nerves (understandably), but more than that, she’s a bundle of contradictions. And that eats away at his nerves. Emad comes off as a paragon of chivalry who wants only to soothe and support his wife. But the situation is so jangled with Rana’s “unreasonable” feminine neurotic emotion that it won’t allow him to. And he starts to grow impatient. For a healthy stretch, “The Salesman” is even more low-key, minimal and contained than the earlier Farhadi films. Yet the writer-director’s technique is just as assured as before. Every shot is in place, every line leading to an outcome that feels quietly up for grabs. As Emad begins to investigate the crime, he finds a cell phone and a set of keys that open a pickup truck that was left on their block. For a while, none of this seems to go anywhere. “The Salesman” generates relatively little tension as a neorealist detective yarn. But that’s all by design. Emad is only a so-so sleuth, but then he stumbles, virtually by accident, onto the person who, it appears, struck his wife in the shower. The perpetrator is not what we expect, and the revelation of who did it is not the point. The point is something far more saturated with emotional intrigue: Now that Emad has found the crook, what will he do with this knowledge? In a revenge film like “Taken,” the hero, murderous with righteous passion, gets to enjoy the satisfaction of payback (as does the audience), but his machinations also serve a moral purpose: He’s finding his daughter and getting her back. In “The Salesman,” the psychology of vengeance is almost metaphysical in its complexity. Emad wants to punish the man who has caused all these problems for him — and considering that the damage the man inflicted was bloody and dangerous, there doesn’t seem to be much ambiguity about it. But the real problem that Emad is dealing with is the emotional withdrawal of his wife. That’s what’s making him angry; that’s what he wants revenge for. Deep down (in a way that he has zero awareness of), he’s getting back at her. And that’s what makes the unfolding drama of “The Salesman” so tense and devastating. The film is beautifully acted by Shahab Hosseini, who makes Emad a knight with a control freak inside, and Taraneh Alidootsi, who suggests a woeful Iranian version of Marion Cotillard. But the great performance here is that of Babak Karimi, as the lumpish nobody who caused all this. At first, you look at him with a shrug, maybe a glint of contempt, but within 20 minutes, he may have you in tears. The film’s title, incidentally, refers to an amateur production of “Death of a Salesman” that Emad and Rana are both performing in. He’s playing Willy Loman, and she plays his wife, the beleaguered Linda. It’s a conceit that comes off as something of a contrivance — at least, until the very end, when the parallel between Emad and Willy at last hits home. They are good men who, through the tragedy of their choices, wind up letting down the people they love. Farhadi has fashioned a dramatic critique of what he portrays as the Iranian male gaze — a gaze of molten judgment and anger. As a filmmaker, though, his gaze is true.
    Owen Gleiberman, Variety, 20th May 2016.
    At the beginning of “The Salesman,” Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) must evacuate their Tehran apartment. There are cracks in the walls, and the high-rise building is in danger of collapsing. That flawed edifice might stand as a kind of inverse metaphor for the film itself, which is a marvel of meticulous construction. With exquisite patience and attention to detail, Asghar Farhadi, the writer and director, builds a solid and suspenseful plot out of ordinary incidents, and packs it with rich and resonant ideas. Admirers of his earlier films — including “About Elly,” “The Past” and “A Separation,” a foreign-language Oscar winner in 2012 — will not be surprised. Mr. Farhadi has distinguished himself in his generation of Iranian filmmakers as an astute psychological realist and a fastidious storyteller. Although his films take place in a thoroughly modern, urban environment, there is something satisfyingly old-fashioned about his approach to contemporary life, an understated belief in the ethical value of addressing the complexities of experience through the clarity and subtlety of narrative art. Rana and Emad, a childless married couple who look to be in their mid-30s, are both actors, members of a theater company engaged in a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” Onstage, they play the Lomans, Willy and Linda, whose lower-middle-class American world is made to look both familiar and exotic. Some of the play’s sexual frankness has been blunted by Iranian government censors — in a pivotal scene, Willy’s mistress shows up in his hotel room wearing a hat and a belted red raincoat, rather than a nightgown — and its themes of striving and sacrifice seem distant from Rana and Emad’s life. Though they are not wealthy, the fact that they “work in culture” gives them a certain cachet, and they sometimes radiate a quiet sense of superiority in interactions with neighbors and acquaintances. The ghost of Willy Loman nonetheless hovers over “The Salesman,” suggesting an interpretive puzzle. The choice of this particular play-within-the-film can’t be arbitrary, but its meaning is not immediately apparent. For most of its running time, the movie seems occupied with its own dramatic issues, principally the aftermath of a shocking and apparently inexplicable act of violence. The apartment that Emad and Rana move into — thanks to the generosity of a colleague — isn’t actually haunted, but like many films about real estate “The Salesman” is to some extent a horror movie. The previous tenant was a single woman with a young child, and the stuff she left behind is more than just annoying clutter. It’s a collection of clues to an unacknowledged mystery, haunting traces of an invisible life. That life invades the couple’s household with shocking force. Rana is assaulted in the shower, and her attacker vanishes, leaving behind his pickup truck. The crime reveals tensions and fissures within her marriage, and also beyond it. Rana, whose head was injured in the attack — other possible traumas are left implicit — is terrified and distraught, but Emad seems more concerned with the injury to his own manhood. The absence of the police suggests a lack of trust in official authority so complete that it is scarcely worth mentioning. Emad’s search for answers, and for something like justice, turns him into a reluctant vigilante, and “The Salesman” is unsparing in its portrayal of the moral emptiness of personal vengeance. It is in the midst of this painful tale of crime and punishment that the spirit of Willy Loman makes its improbable, powerful and surprisingly literal return. “The Salesman” is about trust and honor, about violence against women in a patriarchal society, about the woe that is in marriage, but it is also about death, a salesman and the hidden brutality of class. Not since Pedro Almodóvar’s “All About My Mother,” which brilliantly re-engineered “A Streetcar Named Desire,” has a classic of the American stage been put to such ingenious cinematic use. Mr. Farhadi’s control is astonishing, as is the discipline of the actors. Their final scenes are at once riveting and hard to watch. Attention, as someone once said, must be paid.
    A. O. SCOTT, The New York Times, 26th January 2017.
    The first time he won an Oscar, for 2011's A Separation, Asghar Farhadi dedicated it on stage to the people of Iran, whose cinema had never been accorded this honour before. The second time, because of Trump's travel ban, he was theoretically restricted from attending, and decided to boycott the ceremony even if an exception were made. When he won, he had a letter read out by the space explorer Anousheh Ansari, referring to the "inhumane law" that had caused his absence. A Separation was the film that propelled Farhadi to the forefront of global art cinema, as a name to conjure with or proudly grace any major festival’s competition slate. His two films since, 2013’s The Past and now The Salesman, have been similarly tangled skeins of domestic intrigue, the cinematic equivalent of what Eugène Scribe called “the well-made play”. Farhadi works through his plots, at the very least, with joined-up precision: each successive scene tightens the knot his characters are trapped in. And his theatre background informs The Salesman more than ever. Its husband-and-wife protagonists, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), are part-time actors playing Willy and Linda Loman in a Tehran production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, when an intruder in their new home leaves Rana with a serious head wound. Caught up in the chaos of transferring their belongings from a structurally unsound old apartment, they’ve also had to empty out the new flat, hastily vacated as it was by a promiscuous, unmarried woman we never meet, and have dumped her possessions outside. In the midst of all this, Rana accidentally buzzes in an unknown man, mistakenly thinking it’s her husband, and though we never see what happens when he’s let in, the incident shakes this marriage to its core. Opting to leave us in the dark about who this man was – not even Rana says she got a clear look – Farhadi makes Emad an outraged detective, whose attempt to avenge the intrusion becomes more than a matter of uxorious protectiveness: it’s also a case of aggrieved male pride. The film’s absorbing middle section drives an unsettling rift between the couple, which Farhadi emphasises best on stage. Rana insists the show must go on, despite her obvious unfitness to act or remember her lines, and suffers a public breakdown Emad doesn’t see coming. We’re privy to whispered moments between them in mid-performance, whose charge has a meta-theatrical quality, as if we’re watching a mini-play within Miller’s: it’s a promising idea which Farhadi could have made considerably more hay with. There were weaknesses in the third act of The Past, which Farhadi let devolve into Agatha Christie-ish mystery-solving that didn’t quite add up. Here the implicated characters are fewer, but the thesis is also thinner. A dinner Rana prepares for Emad and a young boy they’re babysitting is ruined for rather contrived reasons, and the scene as a whole is less valuable than the fresh energy this young actor brings in: Farhadi again proves himself an expert wrangler of child performances. Other subplots with Emad teaching a classroom of students – who take cheeky phone-snaps of him when he falls asleep during a film screening – explore different invasions of privacy outside the home: not only the idea of being photographed against your will, but tit-for-tat when Emad grabs the offending phone to go through it, much to the protest of its unapologetic owner. Though Rana’s damaged emotional state arguably requires too much guesswork, Emad’s easily-bruised ego, which pushes the film to its intense climax, is visible a mile off. In Alidoosti and Hosseini, both key stars of Farhadi’s 2009 group-conscience study About Elly, and particularly the marvellous Babak Karimi as a solicitous theatre colleague, he’s picked a strong troupe who come to his rescue. All three give subtler performances than Cannes Best Actress winner Bérénice Bejo did in The Past. On this present occasion, Farhadi may hardly be reinventing himself, but his old tools serve him just fine.
    Tim Robey, The Telegraph, 17th March 2017.

    What you thought about The Salesman

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    20 (33%) 31 (51%) 8 (13%) 2 (3%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 61
    Film Score (0-5): 4.13

    Collated Response Comments

    We had an attendance of 127 at this screening. There were 61 responses providing a 48% hit rate. “So poignant, so heartbreaking, so well acted, so thought provoking.” “Beautiful film, in every way, full of pathos.” “Excellent in every way – suspenseful, moving, riveting. Acting superb from everyone. First class film.” “The most tense, superbly acted film of the season. GFS must show more films by Farhadi!” “Yes, Hitchcockian – but a film for today.” “Very intense and unusual drama – better in the second half. Couldn’t really understand the tie-in between the “Death of a Salesman” and the main story.” “Suspense ’till the final minutes. In the Middle East story would have been reverse if it was the man and the woman would have been stoned!” “I have spent a good part of my life in the Middle East – the lifestyle architecture is so perfect … dangerous electrics, also patriarchal – what say did the woman have? If she had been the one in the wrong, she’d have been stoned!! He didn’t go to the police because of the shame it would have brought on him!! Very powerful.” “Gripping from beginning to end.” “Gripping and intense. Beautifully acted.” “Excellent acting.” “Very well acted. Shame about the subtitles as they were difficult to read.” “Intriguing / excellent acting.” “Curate’s egg – subtle and naturalistic… motivation not always clear and parallels with Willy Loman hard to find, despite claims in notes.” “Extraordinary. A film that challenges our perceptions of exotic culture.” “Very moving – sad, sombre surroundings reflecting the difficult situation Emad and Rana found themselves in.” “Interesting cultural insights.” “First time – enjoyed.” “A subtle, if rather disjointed film, generating plenty of tension and suspense from workaday situations.” “A bit drawn out.” “The film however was spoilt by the poor quality of the subtitles which were often unreadable on white backgrounds – a shame.” “The subtitles against a white background in the first half prevented me watching all the action. Very good acting from key characters.” “At times too harrowing to watch.” “A very interesting unusual unique story.” “Thought there was going to be a twist but wasn’t!” “Difficult to read some of the subtitles. Great acting and atmosphere.” “Excellent and very deep….” “Gripping film.” “A strange story – deeply disturbing. Brilliantly acted. Usual problem with subtitles.” “Extremely well cast and acted. True to life – but revenge is bittersweet and not always the answer or provide the peace sought. “Tangerines” still takes number 1 spot for me.” “Slow build up, cinematography excellent. Interesting film.” “We never see the previous tenant – prostitute. Overhanging the entire film, had she (the wife) been raped? Husband was needing to justify what had happened to his wife. Shame and revenge the themes… Film was rather prolonged , pace got better. Excellent performances if not understated.” “Too theatrical and too long!” “Not sure what to think about this – maybe depressed!” “Pity about poor subtitles. Film good but - ” “Too long and laboured. Subtitles almost impossible to read on paler backgrounds.” “Felt inscrutable. Unpleasant.” “Unable to emphasise with any of the characters – any more than they could with each other. It was completely sterile.” “Still not sure whether I need to know the story of “Death of a Salesman”!”

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