The audience occupies a very specific, deliberate, position in the films of Asghar Farhadi. His neorealist style, defined by his handheld photography and follow shots, make us particularly present in the world of his films, which always concern the modern Iranian family household, and often times make us complicit to the action taking place. He is a big believer in the universality of the family unit, and presents us with scenarios and dilemmas he’d like us all to consider. His modern classic A Separation (2011) and his 2013 effort The Past do this to devastating effect, and his latest effort, Best Foreign Film Oscar winner The Salesman, exists as a consummation of his technique, and a slight chip in his incredibly influential armour.
The Salesman concerns married couple Emad and Rana who, following the crumbling of their own housing unit, move into a new apartment during the rehearsal period of a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (the two are talented, if not professional, actors). Soon after the move, there is an incident in which Rana is assaulted, and Emad and Rana’s relationship suffers as they both try to reconcile their lives and emotions with this recent event.
The extremely engaging point of conflict in this scenario is the possibility of Emad discovering his feelings towards Rana are less affectionate and more possessive than he’d like to imagine, however Farhadi chooses to use the situation to open such a huge can of worms that this sharp commentary lies almost buried in a range of equally menial side plots. Farhadi wants us to consider our position in these binary conflicts, and there is simply too much going on for us to be invested in the way he’d like, so we inevitably become a spectator. The best parts of his prior films to this were the viewer’s constant frustration at their inability to loyally choose a side in the conflict, and in The Salesman he provides us with the option, perhaps the necessity, to sit out and watch these two cope with the event in their own way.
The act of grief takes on two different lives in the married couple. In Rana we see a very internal performance of shame and fear, coiling in to protect herself, blind to the outside world. Emad’s performance is extremely public, communicating with the outside world, thinking of the event in pragmatic terms rather than emotional. When he leaves for school (he works as a teacher) the day following the incident, Rana begs him to stay, and through the course of her changing her mind and having a real emotional reaction to what has happened to her, he is caught up in belittling her emotions and trying to bring her back into the world of rational thought.
The lead performances by Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti are compelling, and their production of Death of a Salesman increases in relevance throughout the film, though one leaves thinking the play was chosen predominantly for the universal recognition of its themes rather than the exact relevance it has to the story. We see not so much the struggle of the working class man, but Willy Loman’s cries for relevance in his own home life, a plot device in the play for certain, but perhaps one that is more prominent in other lesser known plays that could have been chosen.
The closing third of the film represents, at best, a lost opportunity. Emad locates the perpetrator of the crime, and chooses his own revenge to exact. Farhadi gives a little time to bring Rana into the conflict and posit his desire for revenge against her despair to return to normality, but most of the action is caught up in his anger, which, to the credit of the production and performance, results in an extremely compelling, award winning performance by Hosseini. The faults in this film are not those of lack of virtuosity, something Farhadi and his cast and crew have in spades, or in style, which Farhadi accomplishes with his effortlessly flowing filmmaking, it is in substance, and the choices of substance to focus on for the majority of the film.
It would be impossible for me to argue that The Salesman is a poor film, and it is one I certainly enjoyed very much as a spectator, but one I feel I would have enjoyed much more as an active participant.