The Salesman movie review: Asghar Farhadi’s film poses moral questions about relationships, trauma
Set in middle-class Tehran, The Salesman is about Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), a couple that works in theatre.
Asghar Farhadi’s latest film, The Salesman, starts off with a major natural calamity — an earthquake that forces a young couple to move out of their home and look for a new one. Yet, what makes the film intriguing is how it shows that it’s usually the little things that truly expose the fault-lines in any relationship.
Set in middle-class Tehran, The Salesman is about Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), a couple that works in theatre. While the earthquake causes them to move to the new home — a place that has a history of its own — it is an incident that occurs in this new home that pushes their relationship to its limits.
Make no mistake, The Salesman is far from being Farhadi’s most accomplished film. Unlike his recent successes — A Separation, The Past or even 2009’s About Elly — The Salesman often gently moves between genres. For instance, when Emad and Rana move into the new home, you get a sense of foreboding as they begin to set it up — you almost know that something is about to happen. (Just like you would in, say, The Conjuring; but to a much lesser degree.)
Later, as Emad looks to get to the bottom of the incident, the film almost becomes a whodunnit, with even an all-too-convenient plot twist thrown in to makes things easier for him. In essence, the narrative of the film is largely driven by an actual plot, which takes attention away from the complex unfolding of human emotions that’s usually Farhadi’s forte.
In that sense, The Salesman is also the most accessible of Farhadi’s recent work, because it keeps you hooked because of the plot itself. (That is also perhaps why it sometimes seems like a film with less heft than you’d expect from Farhadi.)
Yet, delve deeper into it, and you’ll see that the film is less about the incident and more about the impact that trauma has on people and relationships. There are times when the film forces you to pick sides, because there are two people in conflict; and yet, you’re hardly ever able to make that choice, because the goings-on are all shrouded in grey.
Shahab Hosseini’s Emad, in particular, really makes things difficult for the audience, because of some inherent charm — both in the actor and the character. Yet, while you find yourself sympathising with him, you might at some point completely disagree with his reaction to various situations, even though from an emotional perspective there appears to be ‘justification’ for what he says and does.
Alidoosti’s Rana is a case study in post-traumatic stress disorder, as she reacts intuitively and uncontrollably to her life being thrown out of gear. Yet, when it really boils down to making a choice between serving the self and serving another person — whoever that might be — she makes the kind of choices that would remind you of the bright, shining core of hope humankind so successfully manages to mask with everyday cynicism and apathy. The film reaches its finest in the climactic sequence of the film, as it truly blurs the lines between black and white, right and wrong.
Through the film, we also see the outer side of the couple’s life — Emad and Rana are stage actors, who’re simultaneously acting in a production of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. Apart from shared themes that the play and the film have — primarily in terms of one's interpretation of and reaction to reality, the theatre portions also show how life sometimes forces you to go out into the world and put on an act, no matter how difficult things seem on the inside. Sometimes, the façade cracks; but the show must go on.
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