The SalesmanMarch 17, 2017
It seemed inevitable that Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman would win this year’s Oscar for best Foreign Language Film. When the Iranian director cancelled his trip to America in response to Donald Trump’s travel ban he touched the fickle hearts of Hollywood’s finest, with his physical absence proving more eloquent than any acceptance speech.
The irony, of course, is that Farhadi’s films are constantly exposing the oppressive conditions of life in Iran – a country where a director must tread carefully, if not fearfully. Farhadi’s contemporary, Jafar Panahi, is still facing a 20-year ban from making films, after being arrested and charged for producing anti-government propaganda in 2010. The fact that Panahi has managed to make three ‘non-films’ since the ban does little to relieve his predicament.
Farhadi is more humanist than propagandist. He doesn’t rail loudly against injustices that are presented as facts of life. His characters accept the obstacles they encounter and look for ways to work around them. It’s up to the viewer to read between the lines, to interpret thoughts that never make their way into the dialogue.
This was the case with Farhadi’s other Academy Award- winning film, A Separation (2011), which set a son’s duty to his father against his devotion to wife and child. We find the same oblique sense of drama in The Salesman, which deals with the complexities of shame and revenge.
When Farhadi presents us with a series of neon signs, flashing up words such as ‘Casino’ and ‘Bowling’, this is not exactly what one expects to find in Tehran. It’s quickly apparent that we are looking at a stage set for a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
Miller’s famous play pulls the rug out from under the American Dream, through the characters of travelling salesman, Willy Loman, his wife, Linda, and their two sons. Willy is an idealist whose dreams have come to nothing. In Iran, Willy’s personal disenchantment might be viewed as an indictment of America’s soulless, materialistic way-of-life. It’s a lesson in how the cultural context can shape the meaning of a play. It also alerts us that the events we are about to witness should not be judged solely from our own cultural standpoint.
Emad Etesami (Shahab Hosseini), a teacher by day, is playing the role of Willy, while his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) is cast as Linda. The season has barely begun when the Etesamis undergo a domestic upheaval as their apartment block is irretrievably damaged by nearby construction work. In America they’d launch a mega law-suit, but in Tehran their only recourse is to seek new accommodation. It’s tempting to read the cracks in the walls as a metaphor for cracks in the social fabric, or perhaps the impending flaws in Emad and Rana’s marriage.
Luckily, one of their colleagues at the theatre owns an apartment that the Etesamis can use. It’s not ideal, because the previous tenant has left a room full of possessions, and a chequered reputation. The other residents tell Emad that the woman who lived there had a lot of “acquaintances”. Point taken.
The flashpoint of the movie arrives when Rana leaves the door of the apartment open, believing that Emad is on his way up the stairs. She goes to take a shower, but it’s not her husband who arrives. In fact we don’t know who it is. Rana is found bleeding in the bathroom, but her attacker has fled. Upon recovering she doesn’t want to talk about the incident, and the director respects that decision. We don’t know the details of what happened, but can only suspect the worst.
Rana refuses to go to the police, believing she will be shamed by their questions and insinuations. Her trauma persists, and Emad sets out to find the intruder and administer his own brand of justice.
His detective work gradually pays off, and the rest of the story details Emad’s efforts to isolate and confront Rana’s assailant. What seemed like a straightforward tale of revenge becomes progressively more complicated, with the shadow of Willy Loman in close attendance. There are several shades of moral complicity, as the seriousness of one offence is weighed against that of another.
Having set out in defence of his wife’s honour, Emad soon finds himself in conflict with her. She sees his need to administer punishment as a way of compounding the problem, piling one trauma upon the next. Emad is waging his own jihad while Rana calls for moderation.
As the offended party should she have the final say in what happens? There’s a suggestion that the rational and moderate Emad is treating his wife as a piece of damaged property. He imitates the blind, impersonal force of the law which Rana has already rejected.
We are conscious that this desperate scenario has come about because nobody trusts the existing legal frameworks to apportion innocence or guilt, mercy or punishment. In such a scenario, it seems that everyone makes up their own set of rules. There’s a lot in this film that remains unsaid, but one violent incident has shown Emad and Rana that they are living by two different creeds.
Written & directed by Asghar Farhadi
Starring Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini, Babak Karimi, Farid Sajjadi Hosseini, Mina Sadati
Iran/France, rated M, 125 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 18th March, 2017.