Cannes 2016 – The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi)

Themes of truth, righteousness, and justice permeate the works of Asghar Farhadi, in some of the most rigourously written films of the twenty-first century. Inspired by Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and realizing that concepts are motifs that can never be conclusively examined, Farhadi returns to the analysis of these ideals he holds dear. But in simplifying the complexities and ambiguities of The Salesman, does his message lose its strength?

The Salesman, Farhadi’s seventh feature, opens with the evacuation of an apartment building in Iran that is falling apart due to architectural faults. Two of its inhabitants, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), are forced to find a new residence. By day, Emad teaches a literature course while Rana stays at home; by night, the two perform as the leads in a production of Death of a Salesman. As soon as they can, they move into another apartment where the previous occupant is referred to by gossipy neighbours as a ‘promiscuous woman’ (it is never explicitly stated, but implied that this woman was a prostitute), unaware that the disarray in their lives is about to crescendo.

One evening, thinking that Emad has buzzed to be let up, Rana leaves the door to their apartment open, and goes to wash her hair. When Emad finally arrives, bloody footprints lead to their bathroom, where he finds Rana unconscious due to a head wound. It’s a mysterious scenario, because Rana has no recollection of what exactly happened, or who her attacker might be. Realizing that is purely speculative, Rana’s gut reaction is to try to forget what has happened and leave the police out of it. Emad, however, enraged by the violation of his wife’s well-being and the safety of their home, is resolved to understand what has happened.

Asghar Farhadi’s detractors have charged him with repetition throughout his filmography, and it appears as though Farhadi has made an effort to shake things up. The visual potentials of Fireworks Wednesday and A Separation were perhaps limited by nature of being largely chamber pieces, but The Salesman‘s frames show that Farhadi is not only a talented writer: he has the eye of a technician, too. Establishing shots of the theatre where Death of a Salesman is staged are wide, counterintuitively angled shots that are lit in gorgeous high contrast to give it a modern, in-colour feel of an old noir, and accentuate the sense of mystery in The Salesman‘s atmosphere. While The Salesman‘s plotting is a relatively linear evolution of events and themes in comparison to the way that his previous works twist and fold in on each other, the moral ruminations at the heart of his interests are intact.

In lieu of flexing his skills for erecting labyrinths of convolution, Farhadi’s effort is to more primarily focus on Rana and Emad’s emotional reactions as he weighs absolution versus uncertainty. Drawing from the parallel of Death of a Salesman lead Willy Loman’s frustration over not being able to provide for his family, a misplaced feeling of helplessness drives Emad to become thirsty for retribution: an attempt by him to regain the sense of power he has lost. Blinded by his anger, Emad does not see that he is exacerbating Rana’s mounting depression and driving her away from him, or that his single-minded thirst is for revenge, not justice.

In meditating on the emotions themselves, Farhadi enhances his newest exploration of morality in a way that makes it feel less like a parable, and more like an emotionally precise and earnest comment on human motivation. While he returns to philosophical and symbolic observances, The Salesman is less brainy and opaque than his previous works. But, though not as jaw-droppingly intellectual, by dialing back the temptation to slightly overwrite his dramas, his conclusions are more mature and definite, though still never dogmatic.