The world stage
A powerful, Oscar-winning drama from Iran
The Salesman won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and it’s pretty clearly one of the very best films, foreign or not, from the last 12 or so months.
Like other recent successes of its gifted Iranian writer-director, Asghar Farhadi— A Separation (an Oscar winner in 2012) and The Past—the new film is a surprisingly complex domestic drama, a seemingly offhanded study of modern-day relationships in common workaday situations. Iranian men and women on the cusp between modern freedoms and traditional strictures are a recurring feature of his dramas, and yet the stories he tells have a much broader interest and wider appeal than their very precise settings and background details might seem to suggest.
The married couple in this case are Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), and the lead actors in a little theater production of Death of a Salesman. Farhadi uses scenes and moments from Arthur Miller’s play as a kind of ironic counterpoint to events in the couple’s daily life. But the most compelling dramatic turmoil in Farhadi’s Salesman arises in the aftermath of an unknown intruder’s off-screen assault on Rana.
It’s at that point that The Salesman becomes a unique kind of mystery story, very unconventional and offbeat but also extraordinarily perceptive. Both Rana and Emad hesitate to report the assault to the police, but not for the same reasons. Somewhat belatedly, Emad begins tracking the culprit who, in his rush to flee the scene, has left a trail of mundane clues behind. Partly by accident, Emad catches up with the guilty party, but soon has several reasons for wishing he hadn’t.
The hapless culprit (played by portly Farid Sajjadihosseini) is a decidedly unvillainous sort, a banal figure whose impulsive moment of evil seems inexplicable even to him. Emad, who also works as a school teacher, seems a natural leader, but his sudden descent into vengefulness proves ruinous in several respects. And Rana, who had seemed inclined to remain on the sidelines in matters of dispute, begins to show signs that she could become the film’s moral center.
You might say that The Salesman turns the conventional crime story inside out. In any event, the results are powerful and, at times, devastating.