"The Salesman" - Asghar Farhadi (2016)

Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (Forushande, 2016) is another dramatic tale of evolving marital disharmony that has almost become this Iranian writer-director’s trademark.  Similar to his previous films – such as Fireworks Wednesday (2006), About Elly (2009), A Separation (2011), and The Past (2013) – Farhadi presents in The Salesman a young middle-class couple whose relationship is subjected to a tragic, disruptive event.  What makes all those films particularly interesting is the way Farhadi presents multiple perspectives with respect to what is going on.   So what may seem to be clear-cut from one point of view may look entirely different when seen through a different contextual lens.  Although it takes awhile to get there, this multiple-viewpoint tableau comes to the fore in The Salesman, too.

In addition to, and related to, this multiple-viewpoint issue are social themes that often show up in Farhad’s films.  Some of them are particularly significant for the Iranian social context, but they can be appreciated by everyone.  Here are a few of them:

  • Establishing and declaring what is "true".  When there are multiple perspectives, there are likely to be multiple interpretations concerning what is factually true.  In the physical world of nature, there are often statements that are either true or false.  But in the world of human sociality, there are overlapping social layers, each with its normative context, and we are all accustomed to seeing things from multiple vantage points.  Getting along in larger society, then, often means making some pretenses or obscuring some private information in order to obscure ethical conflicts that arise.  Thus we selectively offer some “edited” information to others in order to make things go smoothly.  Iranians, in particular, are often inclined to obligingly tell people what they think their audience wants to hear.  This issue is notably important in About Elly and A Separation, but it comes up in The Salesman, too.
  • The importance of a private living space.  We are all aware of the distinction between public space and private space, which are governed by differing norms. In Iran this is very important.  Many Iranians greatly value the sanctity of their privates spaces, where they can act relatively freely and not be subjected to oppressive societal restrictions [1].  A violation of one’s private space can be felt as a personal and distressful affront.
  • Maintaining face.  Although people treasure their private lives, they also want to be respected in the public space.  This can mean engaging in some form of social salesmanship in order to maintain their public image and not be subject to social ridicule. (It can also mean that people are deterred from going to the police when criminalized in order to avoid having their lives opened up to public inspection.)
  • Revenge.  Vengeance is often a big issue with men, and losing face is one of the primary motivations for it.  Often the desired revenge is to humiliate and emasculate the offending party, thereby making that person suffer the horror of losing face.
  • Forgiveness.  An alternative, but seldom seen, response to an offense is forgiveness. All religions commend acts of forgiveness, but how often do we see it unless the offending party humiliates himself by begging for forgiveness
The story of The Salesman concerns the events surrounding a young married couple, Emad (played by Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti).  By day, Emad is a charismatic teacher of literature at a senior secondary school.  In the evenings, both Emad and Rana are actors in a theatrical company, which is currently engaged in rehearsing and performing Arthur Miller’s prize-winning play, Death of a Salesman (1949).  In the play, Emad plays the role of the ill-fated main character, Willy Loman, while Rana plays the role of Willy’s wife, Linda.  Throughout the film, Emad and Rana are sometimes shown engaged in their theatrical stage performances.  In the course of these presentations, we see how their dramatic personae give both of them masks that serve two seemingly conflicting purposes: 
  1. to hide their true selves and present their public faces
  2. to partially shield themselves so that they can express their true emotions as if  they were coming from someone else. 
The film’s narrative passes through four somewhat disjointed acts.

1.  Emad and Rana 
The film opens disturbingly with Emad and Rana in their apartment, which starts shaking violently.  What seems like an earthquake turns out to be a destabilized foundation caused by nearby construction equipment, but the results are no less ominous.  Their building nearly collapses, and Emad and Rana are forced to evacuate and look immediately for new living quarters.  All of this is presented very realistically by Farhadi, and it sets a tone about how one’s comfortable home can be suddenly disrupted by an external event.

Also shown are Emad and Rana’s activities, including their work on the locally-produced staging of Death of a Salesman.  One of the issues of staging such a play, by the way, is getting it past the restrictive government censors, who are always demanding scene cuts, and this is briefly depicted. 

One of their fellow actors in the play, Babak (Babak Karimi), arranges for Emad and Rana to get a newly available apartment, no easy task on short notice in Tehran.  The apartment’s previous tenant has left some of her personal belongings in a locked room, the inconvenience of which irritates Rana.  Emad, however, is more respectful of the woman’s private items and tries to mollify his wife. 

2.  An Intruder Comes
One day while waiting for Emad to come home, Rana hears the downstairs entry buzzer go off, and assuming it is Emad, she pushes the button allowing entry and unlocks the apartment front door.  Then she goes to take a shower.  What happens next is unclear, but we know that an intruder entered the apartment and assaulted Rana.  It will later be revealed that the previous tenant of the apartment they are now occupying was a prostitute who had many male clients.  When Emad comes home shortly thereafter he sees bloody footprints on the apartment staircase and learns that Rana was discovered by neighbors after the attack and taken to the hospital.

Rana is soon released, but it is clear that the attack has shattered her.  She doesn’t want to talk about it to Emad (Farhadi was probably limited in what he could portray anyway), and she seems dazed and confused.  Although Emad is solicitous, he seems more concerned about his own impotence in this matter than willing to attend to Rana’s agony.  In short order he begins to lose patience with her silent suffering.

3.  The Hunt for the Perpetrator
Now the focus of the narrative shifts over squarely on Emad. They are not going to go the police about the matter, assuming this would only bring more trouble upon themselves, so Emad sets about trying to find the culprit.  Rana says she cannot remember what happened or even what the assailant looked like, so Emad doesn’t have much to go on.  But he does discover some money, some keys, and a mobile phone that were left in haste by the assailant, and with these he starts trying to hunt him down.

This part of the film evolves more like a conventional detective story, with Emad bumbling away but gradually uncovering some clues.  He also appears to be becoming more obsessed with taking revenge as he starts get closer to catching someone.

4.  The Perpetrator Found
Eventually and after a number of improbable events, Emad does discover and trap Rana’s assailant.  He turns out not to be the person Emad originally suspected, but instead a very unexceptional and vulnerable individual (well portrayed by Farid Sajjadi Hosseini).  It is at this point that the viewer starts seeing the vengeance story line from multiple perspectives.  This is also the most interesting and moving part of the film.  Emad is unsure of what he wants at this point, but since he feels he, himself, was humiliated, he wants to subject the assailant to maximal humiliation.  This is the revenge mentality.  If a man loses face, he wants his enemy to lose even more face.

The final events are disturbing, and you are left at the end to reflect on the states of mind of Emad and Rana, as well as on the fate of their relationship and whether any forgiveness will be forthcoming.

In some ways The Salesman is more like Fireworks Wednesday than Farhadi’s subsequent films, and this is unfortunate [2].  About Elly, A Separation, and The Past had social fabrics that were more sophisticated and multilayered than what appears in The Salesman.  What we witness in this film is a decent man with respectable, civilized values who gradually and unwillingly, debases himself.  It can be painful to watch.

There are also some weaknesses to the film.  Babak appears to be a significant character over the first part of the film, and the viewer is given some information about him that seems likely to be important later.  But in the final parts of the film, Babak more or less disappears from sight, and that seems to leave a hole in the story.  In addition Rana is gradually overlooked as the film progresses.  Whether or not Emad sees her as “damaged goods”, he doesn’t seem to be much of a sympathetic partner.  Although some reviewers seem to empathize fully with Emad’s frustrations over Rana [3], I find Emad to be ultimately too self-obsessed, and this reduces my engagement with the film.  This is another aspect of The Salesman that harkens back to Fireworks Wednesday – focalized characters from whom we disengage.

Another problem is shaky hand-held camera work, particularly in the first half of the film, that is more than just bothersome. There seems to be little motivation to these movements, as if the camera operator were just wandering randomly about the set and trying to keep the principals in frame.  Presumably this jittery movement is supposed to induce emotional agitation, and it can be justified in some circumstances, such as when a building is collapsing.  But unfortunately the jerky camera is used in far too many situations in this film.  The camera movements here are not comparable to those of people like Antonioni and Mizoguchi, for whose films the camera movements actually enhance the psychological immersion of the viewer.  There are also fixed-frame closeups that should be filmed with a fixed camera, but are instead evidently hand-held.  All of these things call unnecessary attention to the camera work and reduce the viewer’s psychological involvement in the narrative. 

Farhadi’s earlier films also suffered from an over-use of jittery hand-held camera techniques, but this was significantly reduced in his preceding film, The Past.  That film had a different cinematographer, Mahmoud Kalari (he was also the cinematographer for A Separation).  For The Salesman Farhdi’s cinematographer was Hossein Jafarian, who had been the cinematographer for Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly. Whomever Farhadi uses as his cinematographer in his next film, I hope that he attends to more controlled and fluid camera usage.

Despite these shortcomings, Farhadi’s The Salesman is worth seeing, though no match for his sublime About EllyThe Salesman does come together as it approaches the end, and the pacing and acting performances are first-rate. Especially effective is the use of Taraneh Alidoosti’s silent but expressive countenance in reaction shots to convey a mood, echoing a visual technique Farhadi used with her in Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly.  They all contribute to the film’s presentation of a gradual unraveling of a man we can understand and to whom we can relate. 

At Emad’s school where he taught literature, he was a respected role model who seemed to know what is right.  And at one point earlier in the film, Emad is traveling somewhere in a taxi cab with one of his students, and Emad is insulted by a self-righteous woman sitting next to him (taxis in Tehran usually take multiple fares and have them all sit together).  Afterwards, the student expresses his angry sympathy for his esteemed teacher in the face of the woman’s rude behavior.  But Emad takes the high road on this occasion and tells the student that we should forgive the woman – she probably had suffered from some earlier incident in a taxi that had ruined her civility.  This was the high-principled Emad talking, before he himself lost face and began to lose his bearings.  At the end he has become a salesman (of himself) who doesn’t believe in what he is selling.

  1. Hooman Majd, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, (2009), Anchor. 
  2. Peter Bradshaw, “The Salesman review: Asghar Farhadi offers layers of Willy Loman”The Guardian, (21 May 2016).
  3. Owen Gleiberman, “Cannes Film Review: ‘The Salesman’”, Variety, (20 May 2016).

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