Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose “A Separation” is one of the great films of recent years, works in a more frankly straightforward and theatrical style than, say, a more aesthetically daring compatriot like the late Abbas Kiarostami. With Kiarostami, in such films as “Taste of Cherry” and “The Wind Will Carry Us,” what at first seems unstaged, almost documentary-like, gradually gives way to something more confounding and ethereal.
With Farhadi, you never get the sense that what you are watching will morph into stylistic abstraction. The mysteries in his movies are enfolded within the realm of the comprehensible. They are the mysteries of human interaction, of the ways in which social forces distend people’s lives. Farhadi’s new film, “The Salesman,” isn’t his best, or even second best, but it offers up glints of what, at times, makes him one of the best directors around. The film was nominated for the Oscar for the best foreign language film.
Emad (a marvelous Shahab Hosseini, who was also astonishing in “A Separation”) is a high school literature teacher in Tehran, Iran, who has recently moved into a spacious rented apartment with his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), only to suddenly undergo a forced evacuation when its infrastructure collapses. Thanks to a helpful friend, Babak (Babak Karimi), who works in the theater troupe they participate in, the couple relocates to a nearby building he rents out. But the previous tenant, who we soon realize was a prostitute, has left behind most of her belongings with no intention of retrieving them. (A nice touch: Judging from the doodlings on the walls, it’s likely this woman also had children.)
The theater troupe is rehearsing a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” with Emad as the enraged Willy Loman and Rana as his long-suffering wife, Linda. At first, it seems incongruous to stage this play in modern Iran, and not only because of censorship restrictions. (In one sequence, a woman who, per Miller, is supposed to be largely unclothed, appears fully dressed.) But what connects this play with Iranian audiences is the bedrock emotionalism of the piece. Farhadi, with perhaps an excess of contrivance, both extends and simplifies the play’s meanings in order to parallel the fraught relationship between Emad and Rana that ensues when a disruptive event – a human collapse to match the infrastructure collapse – occurs.
One night, while Rana, alone in the apartment, is about to take a shower, a stranger, whom we don’t see, gets inside and bludgeons and almost certainly rapes her. She returns home from the hospital traumatized and resists Emad’s increasingly frustrated attempts to break through to her. Because the couple doesn’t want to involve the police, Emad tries to track down the intruder on his own and seek retribution.
One of the film’s more fascinating complexities is that we sense early on that Emad’s quest for vengeance is as much for his own sake as for his wife’s; she does not ache for reprisal in quite the same way. Although Emad is no supersleuth, he does eventually manage to locate the culprit, and it is at this point that the film, which until now has been a slow fuse, explodes.
Emad’s humiliation of the man, who does not fit our preconceptions and is extraordinarily well played by Farid Sajjadi Hosseini, eventually involves the man’s family. Suddenly the film opens out into a full-scale dramatization of the social, political, and religious crosscurrents that have roiled not only the lives of these people but also so much of Iranian society. It’s a long sit to get to this point, but the wait is worth it. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements and a brief bloody image.)