The Salesman: A Timely Film

It’s time we get used to reading subtitles.

The Salesman is one of five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film in the upcoming 89th Academy Awards on February 26. Due to the executive order banning travellers from seven Muslim countries, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi will not be attending. The director has indicated he will not accept any exception made for his case. Co-star Taraneh Alidoosti has stated she will boycott the ceremony as a protest.

Whose loss is it that Asghar Farhadi is banned from coming to the Academy Awards?

After the untimely passing last year of Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy, 2010), Farhadi continues to carry the legacy of fine Iranian filmmaking with international accolades. Starting with About Elly, which he won Best Director at Berlinale in 2009, Farhadi went on to capture both the Oscar and the César Award in France for Best Foreign Language Film with A Separation (2011). The Past (2013) brought him two Cannes prizes. His newest work The Salesman won a Best Screenplay for the writer/director and a Best Actor award for his star Shahab Hosseini at Cannes last year. Now North American viewers have a chance to see this engaging family drama.


The story starts off with an evacuation of an apartment building on the verge of collapsing. A couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini, A Separation, About Elly) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti, About Elly) are among the anxious residents fleeing the building. We can see large cracks on the wall in their bedroom. Responding to the shout for help, Emad diverts to his neighbor’s unit to carry his adult, mentally ill son on his own back to go down the stairs. A seemingly spontaneous move in the rush of evacuation, Farhadi lets us see an act of kindness from his main character.

A friend offers Emad and Rana a recently vacated apartment unit to stay. Its previous tenant still has her belongings stored in one room. She has left in haste, a shady figure who has frequent male clients coming to her unit. Emad only learns of this after a violent incident that happens to his wife. Rana is alone in the unit one night. She leaves her apartment door ajar for Emad, thinking he will come home soon while she steps into the shower.

Emad returns home to see traces of blood on the stairs and soon learns that his wife has been taken to the hospital emergency by neighbors. We as viewers do not know exactly what has happened but can conjecture by the circumstance. We see a traumatized Rana with stiches on her forehead. She is released to recover at home, but refuses to let Emad call the police. Later, as Emad discovers a cell phone and a set of keys left by the intruder, he decides to investigate on his own and takes matters into his own hands.

Since the incident, husband and wife begin to drift slowly apart, Rana being reticent and Emad vigilant. Here we see Farhadi’s signature cinematic handling: incisive depiction of domestic tensions shrouded in Hitchcokian suspense. We soon forget we are watching an Iranian couple living in Tehran. As with his previous works, Farhadi is effective here in engaging his viewers and to elicit empathy for both the husband and the wife despite their very opposite response to the attack.

Emad and Rana belong to a local theatre group. They are presently rehearsing for a run of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, playing Willy and Linda Loman. Farhadi deftly intertwines the on-stage and the real-life couple with intricate parallels. In the play, we see the demise of Willy Loman and the end of a relationship; in their real life, we see Emad and Rana’s marriage deteriorate, and a demise of a different kind for Emad. The cracks on the wall above their bed at the opening scene is now an apt metaphor, their once close bond slowly crumbles.

Actually, there are two plays involved in the film. The obvious one is Miller’s. The other is easy to miss. During the day, Emad is a teacher. In one scene, we see him teaching a play called The Cow, a work written by the prolific Iranian writer Gholām-Hossein Sā’edi. Reminiscent of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, The Cow evokes much enthusiasm in his class of teenage boys. The play is an allegory about a man who owns the only cow in a village; his daily life is closely tied to the animal, his identity defined by his ownership of this unique possession. When one day he loses his cow in an accident, he ends up turning into one.

Here are two prominent lines. A student asks: “How can you turn into a cow?” Emad answers: “Gradually.” Sounds like a joke, but no student laughs. Farhadi subtly leads us to see how.

The last part of the film is the most crucial. Emad’s good detective work leads him to come face to face with the attacker. He has him locked in a room in their previous, vacated apartment. Playing to the attacker’s fear of revealing to his wife and family what he had done, Emad calls them to come over. Farhadi is brilliant in leading us to a situation where we as viewers are challenged to empathize all his characters despite their opposing sides, and to weigh in on what we would have done. He puts his viewers in the position not as a judge, but witness.

Slowly we are led to see how a man can lose the veneer of civility and change into something else as he allows revenge dominates his emotions. The kind and helpful man we see in the opening scene is now shrouded in a different sentiment. In the most nuanced and quiet manner, Farhadi lets us visualize Emad’s earlier reply to his student, how a man can gradually change into a different being. Or, is it a latent potency we all have that different circumstances would elicit a different aspect of our self?

At this juncture, Farhadi reveals to us a multi-faceted man. A helpful neighbour, loving husband, well-liked teacher, and a cultured stage actor. When put in a situation where vigilante justice takes over, and revenge molds the mind, or even when the social expectation of being a protective male head in a marriage prevails, is Emad free to act? If the accused pleads for his own release, and the victim herself is willing to forgive, should the husband carry out his reprimand? On the other hand, should the attacker just go free?

In the final shot, we see Emad and Rana sit beside each other as make-up is applied to get them ready for their parts as Willy and Linda. Their expressions in the mirrors make one haunting image to end the film.

Banned from entering the United States, what Farhadi will lose are the glitz and glam of the Oscars. By his absence at the ceremony, the Academy will lose the chance to honor an internationally acclaimed director who is a master in revealing human frailties and eliciting from viewers the very empathy we so need in this testing time.

Fortunately we can still watch his film.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

13 thoughts on “The Salesman: A Timely Film”

  1. I think this movie has a fair chance of winning the Academy Award this year. The director’s work does not generally appeal to me and I thought “The Past” was dull, but this film seems to have everything going for it.


    1. dbmoveisblog,

      Yes, I think the film has a good chance of winning too, given the present political climate. Not that it takes certain conditions to make it a good movie, but it does take certain conditions to affect Academy voters’ choices. At the moment, La La Land just may sound a bit trivial in the larger scheme of things. As for The Past, I’ve to say I like it more than A Separation even though A Separation may be a better production. About Elly is an intriguing story too. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. La La Land may even overtake Moonlight given the political climate. But then again, how the Academy may not pick as its Best Picture- what is essentially – a movie that represents everything Hollywood stands for? They may think they would regret their decision in years time if they didn’t vote for La La Land.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Have not seen any of Farhafd’s works,
    This one sounds intriguing, will definitely try to catch it, and yes will try to get used to reading subtitles.
    Thanks for the review!


    1. Yinling,

      Do try to see this one if you can find it in a theatre near you. It’s being screened in selective cities across North America now. All Farhadi’s films mentioned here are worth your time. They are all good, in different ways. I think you’ll enjoy them.


  3. It’s hard to keep up with events, but as of last night, a federal judge lifted the ban nationwide. Whether that holds, or whether the ban is reimposed, is yet to be determined. And, of course, even with the ban lifted, there’s the question of whether Farhadi and Alidoosti will come to accept their prize.

    Totalitarian regimes around the world — Cuba and Russia come first to mind — have been guilty of forbidding their citizens to travel to receive awards. I can’t remember another country forbidding artists to come in to participate in award ceremonies, but coming or going, the dynamic is the same. There’s much about the tactics of our far left that I dislike, but the resistance itself is important.

    There are cracks appearing everywhere these days, aren’t there? It sounds as though this film would make a good starting point for discussion of them.


    1. Linda,

      Farhadi is a master of depicting domestic relationships, this one has his signature of a nuanced, subtle, yet suspense filled production. I know the subtitles are a tricky bit, like you have to work extra hard but I think it’s worth it. Viewers can easily find the universality in the characters of Farhadi’s films.

      As for his response to the travel ban, here’s Farhadi’s statement: incisive and relevant for our time.


  4. Another one that will probably not make it here. Or maybe — one can hope. I’d love to see it though it sounds like a very tough one. (Not fitting my current “don’t see or read anything deeper than a gumdrop” mode these days. But this — I think so. NPR did a very good review of it yesterday and said that the director said he would not attend, no matter what. I suppose that’s likely to change. I’m curious as to when ballots are due. I think politics and current events could play a big role as events unfold.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jeanie,

      You’re right. It may not make it over to your area. But in case it does, or you can find other means to view it, do check it out. You don’t see the violence, so don’t worry. But Farhadi is a master of domestic relationships, nuanced handling of his characters. You may want to find his previous works in DVDs or streaming as well. I like “The Past”, with Bérénice Bejo (“The Artist”). You’ll enjoy it.


    1. Stefanie,

      Do check this out. I think you’ll enjoy it. Watch this one first, then go back to Farhadi’s previous works. Well worth your time. I think Bookman will like them too. 😉

      “The Salesman” opens next Friday, Feb.17th at Landmark Edina Cinema in Minneapolis.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I just heard on the evening news that the 3 judges at the federal appeals court have declined to restore D. Trump’s travel ban (he is furious of course.) I wonder if now Farhadi will reconsider coming to the US. The film sounds very interesting. I was just reading about a new movie called “A United Kingdom” – have you already talked about that one? I’d love to see it.


    1. VB,

      Yes, the three judges rule against the ban. I’m not sure though if director Farhadi would change his mind at this scenario. He’d said he didn’t want any ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’. I’m really not sure the present situation falls into these two conditions.

      As for “A United Kingdom”, it has not arrived in our city yet. I haven’t seen it although I’ve heard good things about it. But another one I’ve seen, a similar case and true story with historical setting in the U.S. is “Loving”. You would like that one. Do check it out. Its female star Ruth Negga is nominated for an Oscar for her role.


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