Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Starring Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi, Mina Sadati, Farid Sajjadi Hosseini and Shirin Aghakashi
In UK Cinemas March 17th, 2017
by Richard Hamer
The Salesman arrives in the UK newly flushed with Oscar success, the second Academy Award for writer-director Asghar Farhadi. It’s a drama of failing relationships – typical for the director – blended with mystery and suspense into an engaging mix that is neither quite one nor the other. There are shades of Hitchcock in its propulsive forward momentum, even a dash of Park Chan-wook in its single-minded protagonist, its unflinching male gaze.
It opens with an apartment building on the verge of collapse. Residents Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are forced to flee, moving in to an apartment owned by their friend Babak, an actor in the theatre in which they both work. The new apartment seems fine, the only real inconvenience is the belongings of a previous tenant that have been left behind.
One evening while Emad is away, Rana is assaulted by an intruder she mistakenly allows into the apartment. It becomes clear that her attacker has some connection to the previous tenant; she was a prostitute, the intruder one of her clients. Rana begins to sink into paranoia and depression; traumatised and ashamed, she refuses to go to the police, to even be left alone in the apartment. Emad meanwhile becomes obsessed with tracking down her attacker, pursuing a line of investigation that grows increasingly out of control.
It is in what follows – in the cracks in the relationship that form alongside Emad’s persistent and amateurish sleuthing – where The Salesman excels. This is a movie of complex psychology, where justice and closure – noble words, all told – are subsumed by darker thoughts. Emad hunts for the attacker – yes – but for whom it is not clear. In his mind, he too is a victim. An attack on his wife is an attack on his pride, and the ever-growing distance between them is humiliation for a husband.
In its masterful closing act, even the act of revenge itself is robbed of the pleasures of simple cinema. When the initial crime is only the catalyst for a string of further wrongs, none so easily resolved, there can be no closure. Here perhaps is where comparisons to Park Chan-wook’s work can be found, in its thorough deconstruction of the futility of revenge.
It goes without saying that performances are stellar throughout: Shahab Hosseini is superb as a man who is one vast knotted ball of frustration, slowly unraveling. You watch – moved – as he dissolves from loving husband, adored teacher and respected actor to something much baser; something you hate, but still understand. As Rana, Taraneh Alidoosti portrays a victim of assault with great care and subtlety, while also imbuing it with an air of uncertainty and suspicion that leaves you unable to feel exactly as you expect to feel, to settle into your sympathies so absolutely.
The Salesman is an essential work. Regardless of the undeniable impact of politics that has surrounded it, its Oscar win is absolutely deserved. As a revenge thriller it is taut and sophisticated, dealing smartly with mystery and suspense without ever undermining its essential seriousness; never giving way to ‘pulp’. As a drama it excels, its message of male pride and humiliation delivered too skilfully, too forcefully to be dismissed as just an ‘Iranian man’ problem.
And in the light of recent events; of Executive Order 13769 and Farhadi’s subsequent boycott of the Academy Awards, the importance of The Salesman grows greater still. Here we are presented with Iranians in a light that should surprise absolutely no-one, yet – if the actions of the current U.S. administration are any indication – may sadly surprise many: As men and women of the arts. As actors, teachers and students. Their failures, their insecurities, are our own. Undiminished by distance, undistorted by the politics of our time.