The Salesman Review by Tanner Stechnij
Asghar Farhadi’s brand of socially conscious filmmaking emphasizes “realism” over “reality, ” and The Salesman continues the studies of these loose artistic principles, for better or for worst. This movement, often called poetic realism, is associated with Iranian New Wave but originated with French directors of the ’30 like Jean Renoir. Films in this style usually focus less on the way things are, but rather how things can be perceived, with isolated events coming together to create an abstract but reality-based whole. Iranian contemporary Abbas Kiarostami often worked in the constructs of poetic realism. Michael Haneke is known for his own brand of realism that also focuses on the unknown and unfamiliar — Neils Niessen calls it “staged realism,” but it mostly operates in the same way that Farhadi plays with perception and reality. Farhadi successfully navigates this style in his seminal masterwork About Elly, which relies on the viewer not trusting what is presented to them, but it serves as a distraction in The Salesman, as Farhadi’s moral message grows more muddled due to a schematic, unnatural plotting.
Right from the start, Farhadi makes it clear that he doesn’t intend on misleading the viewer — the opening scene depicts Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti)’s apartment building nearly collapse without much explanation or logic. The scene is chaotic and disorienting, which is widely different than the controlled, tense nature of the rest of the film. The visual severance foreshadows the complications that affect Rana and Emad’s relationship as they move into a rundown apartment complex that used to be inhabited by a prostitute.
Rana and Emad are both actors starring in one of Tehran theaters’ production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman as they are settling into their new residence. One night, Rana is home alone when a client of the prostitute intrudes on her as she is bathing. Unsurprisingly, Farhadi navigates the subtle politics of the incident masterfully by balancing the liberal nature of the couple’s artist friends with the limited, theocratic Iranian regime. Farhadi ditches subtlety for a juicy, palpable tension as Emad goes on a revenge-driven hunt for his wife’s lurker and The Salesman divulges into an examination of the toxic, unforgiving nature of man that feels uniquely cultural but repetitive and diagrammatic. In other hands, the film might have played into the melodrama and lost some of the serious tones, but Farhadi leans into the gritty discomfort. Well, until the last scene which is miscalculated and comes off unintentionally hokey and vaguely campy.
However, there are parts of The Salesman that make it clear that a master is at work. The scenes taken from Death of a Salesman are beautifully crafted and blends the positives of filmed media and staged theater. The sets and lighting evoke a very immersive and different visual layer to the theater scenes.
The cast is stunning and completely in control of the theater and the film. After the incident, the viewer is mainly subjected to Emad’s perspective, and Hosseini’s tour-de-force performance holds the film together. His Prix d’interprétation masculine from Cannes is well-earned as he combines the sageness of a teacher and the emotional intuitiveness of an actor with the contradictory nature of a man who feels emasculated by something out of his control and separates from him. Emad’s shift in character isn’t explicit or well-reasoned, but Hosseini’s performance gives the viewer’s insight into a visceral and entirely emotional change. Alidoosti isn’t given as much to do throughout the film, but she packs a massive punch in the last act as she sacrifices her victimhood for resilience, compassion, and strength — the opposite of her husband.
There are certainly earned moments of high emotion and drama, but the message is often too simple for the contrivances of the plot. The references to Miller’s play don’t seem to add much depth to the incident, central relationship or the relationship of the attacker and his wife. If the film’s ultimate message is the same as one of the themes of Death of a Salesman — a man is “worth more dead than alive” — than Farhadi schematic tendencies are wasted on a minor message that he has explored throughout much of his filmography. The Salesman is Farhadi doing Farhadi, which makes the experience of watching the masterfully crafted, uncomfortably entertaining film almost irritating.The Salesman suffers from being too congested without enough sustenance for it to add anything to Farhadi’s filmography.