The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, 2016)
Asghar Farhadi, who won a Best-Foreign-Language-Film Oscar in 2012 for A Separation, his delicate examination of a divorcing couple in Tehran, is nominated once more, for The Salesman, an equally remarkable film that again takes a fraying marriage as its focus. Emad and Rana, husband and wife, are both actors living in Iran’s capital, performing in a revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (he plays Willy Loman and she, Linda, Loman’s wife). As the movie begins, their apartment building is in the middle of collapsing from the vibrations of a nearby construction site, and so they flee for new quarters, eventually taking up residence in a just-vacated flat owned by the manager of their theater company. Though at first an ideal living space, it is haunted (metaphorically) by the previous occupant, and her baggage (literal, since she has left behind belongings, as well as metaphorical) disrupts the happy duo’s matrimonial bliss when an intruder breaks into the space white Emad is away. Soon, their relationship is tested by their very different responses to the event, leaving them reeling from the unexpected realization that they are effective strangers the one to the other.
Shahab Hosseini (About Elly) won the award for Best Actor at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and it is well-deserved. As Emad, he gives us a powerful portrait of a man who starts out with the best of intentions and quickly descends into vengeful madness. It’s as if his on-stage portrayal of Willy Loman’s ineffectual stumbling drives him to prove that he, at least, can be a real man. Initially sympathetic, Hosseini is brilliant at bringing us along on his journey to the dark side, from which there can be no recovery. He will never be the same, at least in Rana’s eyes. Taraneh Alidoosti (Elly in About Elly), is equally strong as Rana, a woman who undergoes a harrowing event and emerges shaken, but not, ultimately, cowed. Where Emad gives into his demons, Rana rises above them. They are the yin and the yang of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Starting with that opening structural failure, The Salesman tackles issues big and small about what happens when the scaffolding of our lives buckle. Farhadi (who will not be coming to this year’s Oscar ceremony, sadly) has a gentle way with story and actors that belies the ruthlessness of his narrative. Everything counts in this world, so choose your actions wisely. The tragedy of Willy Loman is that he fails at the goals he sets for himself. In a superb feat of dramatic opposition, the tragedy of Emad is that he succeeds. Thankfully for us, Farhadi succeeds, as well, in all of his own filmmaking goals, and The Salesman is an artistic triumph that should give Toni Erdmann a run for the gold statuette. Either would be a worthy recipient.