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