REVIEW: ‘The Salesman’ (2016)

این چیزی است که مانند چیزهای دیگر نه

The SalesmanYou know what I love about Asghar Farhadi films?  They’re all awake.  So many films just seem content with presenting identikit characters sleepwalking through worn, familiar plots.  But Farhadi is a scenarist with the heart of a novelist.  His characters seem alive—fully-realised, complete human beings, with complex thoughts, emotions, and motivations.  He never forces these characters onto some predetermined narrative, but allows them to live and breathe, and honestly react to the other characters in their environment.  This makes a Farhadi film messy and unpredictable; you know, like lifeThe Salesman is no less complex than the other films in his filmography; it’s also more oblique.

Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti play Emad and Rana, a married couple forced to flee their apartment.  A crumbling foundation has caused architectural tremors, with subsequent window breakage and rifts in the wall.  The couple works in the local theatre, currently in rehearsals for Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (symbolism alert).  Another actor secures a  temporary flat for them, until they can find something more permanent.

Problems arise immediately.  The previous tenant, a woman the audience never sees, has left all of her belongings behind.  Apparently, she has yet to find a new abode.  Emad and Rana slowly begin to realise that this woman works as a, er, lady of the night.  They are furious at the actor who got them the apartment; they feel gross just being inside it.  Who knows what lurid, disgusting, sticky acts have occurred there.  They want to leave.

The Salesman

And then comes what I call The Farhadi Moment.  It’s that singular point in his narratives when the entire film pivots.  One evening, Rana prepares to bathe when she hears the door intercom.  She buzzes the caller through, assuming it to be Emad.  It is not.  When Emad finally returns home, he finds the door open, Rana gone, and the bathroom covered in blood.

In About Elly, we never see what happened to Elly, but we do find out.  In A Separation, we never see what happened to Razieh, but we do (probably) find out.  In The Salesman, we never see what happened to Rana, and it’s actually not 100% clear that we ever do find out.

See, The Salesman is slightly different from other Farhadi films in that it’s not so much what happens that’s important; the film is concerned almost entirely with reactions to the central event.  Of course, character behaviour is the main province of all Farhadi films, but for most others, like the aforementioned About Elly and A Separation, the events after The Farhadi Moment involve intensive peeling of narrative layers and mysteries.  That’s less true here.  I won’t spoil anything of course, but it seems the second half of the film is what gives some critics pause, and leads them to call The Salesman Farhadi’s ‘weakest’ film.  (Bilge Ebiri’s review is particularly offensive, for this and other reasons.)

The Salesman

I disagree, obviously.  During the climax, watch everyone’s eyes—there’s a deep emotional underworld bonding these characters and events which I found riveting.  I will concede that the ending is mysterious.  How are we to read it?  As punishment?  As a cruel joke?  But upon which character?  At first glance, it could almost seem like the imposition of some kind of Iranian Hays Code, but I think it’s far more intricate than that.  The themes of Death of a Salesman shouldn’t be too far from your mind while you watch The Salesman.  (Also, note Farhadi’s choice of the Bergman film poster.  It’s not accidental!)

It’s not hard to admire Shahab Hosseini; his work in About Elly, A Separation, and The Painting Pool cements him as one of the best actors in world cinema.  But he reaches his highest peak right here, in The Salesman.  The multidimensionality and intricacy of his performance here is astounding.  Not for nothing did he win the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, and in a more just world, he’d be up for an Oscar next year as well.

The Salesman

The Salesman richly deserves its Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. If only I’d seen it earlier.  You bet your ass I would have voted for it in my ‘Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot‘, and placed it in my ‘And the Nominees Should Have Been‘ essay (replacing Julieta).   Had it been released just three weeks earlier, I would have been able to reach an even ten entries in my Best of 2016 list.  The silver lining, though, is since it technically received a wide release in the United States on 27 January 2017, you will surely see it on my list of Best Films of 2017.  Mark my words.

Follow me on Twitter – @GClarkFinfrock

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