By Diana Cheng
Asian American Press
CALGARY (Feb. 5, 2017) — “The Salesman” is one of five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year in the upcoming 89th Academy Awards to be held on Feb. 26.
Due to the executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim countries, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi will not be attending, and he had indicated that he would not accept any exception made for his case. Even with court rulings overturning the ban, and with appeals pending, those scenarios would be the ‘ifs and buts’ which the director had adamantly stated ‘are in no ways acceptable to me.’ Co-star Taraneh Alidoosti, had also tweeted that she would boycott the ceremony as a protest.
After the untimely passing of Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami in 2016, Farhadi carries the legacy of fine Iranian filmmaking with international acclaims. Starting with “About Elly” back in 2009, which he won Best Director at Berlinale, Farhadi carried on with another winning feature “A Separation” two years later, garnering both the Oscar and the César Award in France for Best Foreign Language Film. “The Past” (2013) brought Farhadi 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 in 2016. 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 had left in haste, a shady figure who had frequent male clients coming to her unit. Emad only learns of this after a violent incident. Rana was alone in the unit one night. She leaves her apartment door ajar for Emad, thinking he would come home soon while she steps into a shower.
Emad comes home to see traces of blood on the steps 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 only 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 attacker, 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.
There are actually two plays mentioned 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” is discussed heatedly in Emad’s 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 and engaging. Emad’s eager 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 what he had done to his family, Emad calls them to come over. Farhadi is brilliant in leading us to a scenario where we as viewers are challenged to empathize all his characters and to weigh in on what we would have done. He had put his viewers in the position not as a judge, but as witnesses.
Slowly we are led to see how a man can lose the veneer of civility and change into something less 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, and that different circumstances would elicit a different aspect of our self?
At this juncture, Farhadi reveals to us a multi-faceted man. A helpful neighbor, a loving husband, a 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 socially accepted norm of being a protective male head in a marriage prevails, is Emad still free to act? If the accuser pleads for his own release, and the victim herself 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.
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. 125 minutes. In Persian with English subtitles. Rated PG13 for mature thematic elements and a brief bloody image.
“The Salesman” opens Friday, Feb. 17 at Landmark’s Edina Cinema in uptown Minneapolis.