The Salesman, the new film from award-winning Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, is a multi-layered, neo-realist drama that evolves into a mystery with strong moral overtones.
The plot centers on a married couple in modern-day Tehran, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini). They are actors in a theater company and as artists they belong to a respected upper echelon of society.
Emad is handsome with an outgoing personality. Rana is more shy and withdrawn. Their seemingly solid relationship is put to the test when a shocking event puts cracks in their marriage, raising questions of trust, honor, temptation, vengeance and shame.
Somewhat surprisingly the movie opens with an image of lit-up words in pink and yellow neon — “Hotel,” “Bowling,” “Casino,” not what one associates with the Islamic Republic.
It turns out they are part of a set for a staging in farsi of Death of a Salesman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Arthur Miller play, which is in rehearsals.
Emad is playing the disrespected salesman Willy Loman and Rana is Willy’s wife Linda. The couple are living in a modern apartment they’ve just rented. But one night shortly after moving in major cracks start appearing in the apartment. It can be seen as a premonition of what happens later in their marriage.
It turns out the building is collapsing and they must leave. A friend from the theater company knows of another apartment they can stay in (not an easy find in crowded Tehran). Unmentioned is that the previous tenant was a prostitute, or euphemistically known as a woman with many acquaintances.
One of those acquaintances comes back to take the story in a dark direction. Rana is home alone and she is taking a shower. She has left the door open for Emad who she expects to return home shortly. But someone else enters.
Rana gets assaulted in the shower by the unknown intruder, though what actually occurs is left deliberately ambiguous.
When Emad returns, he sees blood on the stairwell, and when he gets to Rana, he finds her injured. Was she raped? Was she physically attacked? Did her head get wounded from falling?
Rana did not see the intruder clearly and is reticent to talk about happened. She also does not want to go to the police.
READ: Director Asghar Farhadi on the themes behind The Salesman
Emad turns detective and manages to identify the person who turns out to be a disheveled old man, hardly what he expected.
The pathetic man, acted to the hilt by Farid Sajjadihosseini, is lured by Emad back to the apartment where an extended and excruciating confrontation takes place.
For the final half hour, the viewer is kept on a knife edge. The taut interplay between Emad, all injured pride, Rana, disturbed by her husband’s pursuit of revenge, and the sniveling elderly intruder unfolds as if it were a play in itself.
To go into details would undermine the suspense and impact for someone who has yet to see the film.
The Salesman concludes by returning to the theater for an actual performance of Death of a Salesman. Emad and Rana are seen sitting next to each other in the dressing room, getting their makeup applied, each staring into their own mirror, a tense gulf dividing them.
The show must go on. The pathos of Willy trying to reach out to Linda is played with exquisite intensity by Emad and Rana, a reflection of their reaching out for acknowledgment and respect both as the characters they are playing and in their own marriage.
The audience responds with sustained applause, a double-edged ending for this masterly crafted film.