Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Opens January 27
Asghar Farhadi’s absorbing, Oscar-nominated seventh feature, The Salesman, opens on a theater set: neon marquees and living room furniture. The production is Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a play many Americans read in their teens, between a biology textbook and a driver’s manual. It’s also well-known in Iran, where Farhadi’s film is set, among his usual milieu of educated, unhappy couples. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are playing Willy and Linda Loman, and they aren’t unhappy yet, though their production has its troubles. When stage directions call for a black slip, the actress playing Willy’s mistress, The Woman, enters in a bright red raincoat. Gamely, she delivers her line: “I can’t go out naked in the hall.” A colleague can’t hold in his laughter.
The raincoat is a veil for the censors: neither Farhadi not his fictional troupe can ignore Iran’s strict regulations on women’s dress, or the general taboo on discussions of sex and sexuality. Given this incongruity of word and deed, laughter is understandable, but also insulting to the woman playing The Woman, who threatens to quit. The episode is a perfect overture for the film. What we see isn’t exactly the story, because the story can’t be entirely exposed. And what the men find ridiculous, the woman find unbearable.
Tehran’s infrastructure also can’t stand it. Early in the film, Emad and Rana literally flee their apartment, dangerously destabilized by neighboring construction. After their panicked evacuation, DP Hossein Jafarian (who also shot Farhadi’s Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly) cuts to a bulldozer rumbling busily below, seemingly attacking the foundations of the building even as the windows crack and the walls fissure. Farhadi excels at using textures for his storytelling; in Emad and Rana’s new, temporary apartment, there’s a wearying, low-level grime on everything, and a child’s drawings on the walls. The last inhabitant was a woman the neighbors euphemistically describe as “wild.” Like Bluebeard, she has left behind a locked room filled with her belongings, and when the room is broken into and the belongings heaped outside, Rana is given the role of Bluebeard’s captive wife. Leaving the door open for Emad while she takes a shower after a performance, she is assaulted by a man who was presumably a client of the old resident.
What do I mean by “assaulted”? What does Farhadi mean? He can’t show, and Rana will not say. Discovered by the neighbors in the shattered shower stall, she’s taken to the hospital, where Emad finds her open-eyed while a doctor stitches her head. But she refuses to speak to the police. The questions they would ask! If she didn’t know the man, why did she open the door? What kind of woman was she?
As in his best film, A Separation, Farhadi’s interest looks forensic but is really dramaturgical. Citizen of a society where a slip becomes a raincoat and a woman is automatically suspect, Rana cannot communicate what happened to her or how she feels about it; Emad, perfectly reasonable as Fahradi’s men always are, grows frustrated with what he sees as her irrational behavior. A final confrontation with the attacker, whom Farhadi is determined to make a pitiable figure, is a long, consciously theatrical set piece in the crumbling apartment; the last shot of its empty living room echoes the Death of a Salesman set. By building his Salesman around Miller’s, Farhadi suggests that drama is a language audiences share, even if our bio textbooks instruct us very differently. But emotions also require scripts. In the aftermath of the attack, Emad and Rana are strangers to one another because they no longer have one.