Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s breakout film, 2011’s Academy-Award-winning A Separation, was a masterpiece, so I’ve come to expect a lot from Farhadi. His next film, The Past, made in 2013, wasn’t as good as A Separation but I loved it as well. So, after awarding four stars to both of the Farhadi films I’ve seen, my expectations for Farhadi’s new film, The Salesman, were admittedly much too high. That was no doubt part of the reason that I was disappointed in the film, though it was still among my top-five films of the EIFF.
The Salesman stars Shahab Hosseini as Emad, who teaches literature and acts in a local theatre company. His current role is that of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Coincidentally (especially for the screenplay, which felt too contrived throughout precisely because of such coincidences), Loman’s wife is played by Emad’s wife, Rana, who in turn is played by Taraneh Alidoosti. Following the first performance of the play, Emad stays behind while Rana goes home (to an apartment they just moved into, which had been previously occupied by a prostitute). (Spoiler alert) When the doorbell rings, Rana assumes it’s Emad, so she opens the door and goes to take her shower. But it’s not Emad, and the man who enters in some way assaults Rana in the shower.
When Emad finds Rana in the hospital, he is understandably furious, though he seems more concerned with hunting down the assailant than he is with his wife’s welfare, as if he, not his wife, had been attacked. This is one of a number of reasons that Emad is a less-than-sympathetic protagonist, which in turn is one of the reasons The Salesman was disappointing to me, though Emad’s character was probably quite realistic. I assume Farhadi was trying to expose and challenge the way Emad treats Rana, but by making Rana’s suffering primarily a piece of Emad’s story, the film seems to exacerbate rather than challenge this behaviour.
The Salesman is at its strongest at the end, however, with a number of brilliant, intense and thought-provoking scenes resulting from Emad’s hunt. While there are confusing elements to that hunt, not least because of the way the characters in the play represent characters in the film, it’s riveting and original filmmaking. And despite being a lover of suspense, I was not at all disappointed with the lack of suspense in The Salesman (perhaps because the level of tension was so high).
The acting in The Salesman is flawless throughout, aided by an unusual character depth (at least for the male characters). The writing is extraordinary at times, with so many pieces fitting perfectly together, but at other times it seems heavy-handed and, as mentioned above, too contrived. Nevertheless, I am giving The Salesman a solid ***+. My mug is up. It’s a must-see for lovers of foreign film.