When Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 film A Separation became the first Iranian film to win a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and subsequently became and arthouse hit in America, it both served as a reminder that Iran remains a home to a vital filmmaking scene and alerted the rest of the world to the emergence of one of that scene’s most exciting talents. Directed with slow-boiling intensity, the film explores the fissure between a married couple whose union seems to have arrived at an irresolvable crisis. Detail by detail, Farhadi revealed it as a situation with no heroes and no villains, one in which no one’s entirely right, everyone’s a little bit wrong, and recognizing this will do nothing to resolve the problem.
This sort of complex, gripping study of the fissures that split people apart — as his subsequent film, The Past confirmed — is what Farhadi does best, and he does it better than just about anyone. Farhadi’s latest, The Salesman, which just earned its own Best Foreign Language Film nomination, is no exception, depicting the way a crisis, and one character’s inability to cope with it, pushes a seemingly perfect marriage to the breaking point.
The marriage belongs to Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Tareneh Alidoosti). Emad teaches high school literature where his easygoing style ingratiates him to his students. By night, he acts in theatrical productions, joined by Emad, who, as the film begins, is currently co-starring alongside him in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. (The film’s memorable images include an actress playing Willy Loman’s just-out-of-the-shower mistress dressed in a full raincoat and a turtleneck, to comply with censor’s codes.) But though the film opens with Emad and Rana’s home almost literally falling apart, the real threat to their relationship comes later.
Forced to abandon their disintegrating apartment building, they move to rooftop flat managed by a friend. But their move comes accompanied by ominous signs. One room remains locked and filled with the possessions of the previous tenant, who’s left under clouded circumstances. The light shorts out in the bathroom. By phone, the woman who lived there tells them not to touch her belongings. Each new development plays like a warning they fail to heed. The film is full of such warnings, and with decisions to ignore them.
On opening night, Emad and Rana return home. While Emad ducks out to pick up some groceries, Rana cleans up then decides to shower after buzzing in a visitor she believes to be her husband. It’s not, and Rana returns to find a bathroom filled with blood and Rana nowhere to be found. When he next sees her, she’s in the emergency room, suffering from a head injury that the neighbors blame on a visitor who surely mistook her for the apartment’s previous tenant, whom they describe as a woman who “lived a wild life.”
From there, Emad sets out to find the perpetrator, and The Salesman becomes, for a while, the story of what happens when a man wholly unsuited to seek revenge sets out to exact it. He’s cosmopolitan and sensitive and, as suits an actor, has a sense of the world’s moral complexity. In an early scene he rides in a cab with a student and an older woman. The latter accuses a baffled Emad of sitting too close to her and asks to change places. When, embarrassed, the student brings up the moment later, Emad remarks that she probably suffered an offense from a man in her past. It’s best, in other words, not to judge.
But how can you not judge a man who assaulted your wife and want the worst for him, whoever he is? And what if you don’t know exactly what happened because you find it impossible to ask? Rana declines to go to the police, knowing they’d suspect her first, and it’s never exactly clear what happened in that bathroom. It’s not that Rana is attempting to hide it, it’s that she knows there’s nothing to be gained from discussing it.
Nonetheless, Emad presses on, and the film pushes toward an extraordinary final act that reveals just how far in over their heads everyone — Emad, Rana, and the assailant Emad eventually tracks down — have gotten — and how impossible it might be for any of them to surface again.
It’s impossible to undersell the craftsmanship Farhadi and his actors — both Hosseini and Alidoosti are extraordinary here — put into the film. Every line matters and the matter-of-factness with which Faradi depicts the unfolding tragedy only deepens it. Like A Separation, it works as a piece of social commentary, forcing its characters to navigate some specific cultural expectations that don’t always seem to be set up for their happiness and well being. But it’s also about how characters navigate their world, and the way their actions go against their own professed values and in defiance of their better angels. That’s as true of Emad as of Willy Loman, two men removed by half a century and several continents and united by their own inability to recognize the moment they took a wrong turn that may make it impossible ever to go home.