Writer/director Asghar Farhadi uses his characters like no one else. His screenplays are often constructed on one mere occurrence, one action that could be considered almost seemingly random. He then relies on his characters to take the story the rest of the way, letting their reactive emotions run their course and drive them to action. This one seemingly inconsequential moment quickly becomes a catalyst for the entire rest of the film.
This structure brought him Oscar gold in 2012(for “A Separation”). His intermediate film, 2013’s “The Past”, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes. Now, he is once again nominated for an Academy Award for his latest film, “The Salesman.” And when it comes to his unique brand of character focus, his latest project is no exception. It also feels reminiscent of the work of Michael Haneke: a thinking man’s(or woman’s) picture, but perhaps with less bursts of violence.
“The Salesman” focuses on Emad(Shahab Hosseini) and Rana(Taraneh Alidoosti), a couple who share stage time as the husband and wife in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. However, the film’s first scene is at their home. Shouts punctuate the opening, as they are forced to abandon their apartment building. It seems the structure might collapse, and the camera focuses on a pair of windows right before they start to crackle, the glass splintering away. Needing a place to stay, a fellow cast member offers them a space in the building he manages. He lets them occupy the apartment for free until they can find a permanent residence.
There is only one potential hiccup: the former tenant has left a whole room of belongings behind, and keeps making excuses as to why she’s delaying retrieving her stuff. Fed up, the manager unlocks the bedroom door, and Rana and Emad move most of the furniture out of the room, but leave her clothes and some of her other personal effects as they are. The couple also meet some of their new neighbors, and seem to be settling in quite nicely, but the peace does not last.
The brief synopsis of “The Salesman” on IMDB does not do the film justice, as it merely states the couple’s relationship starts to turn sour during their time performing the play. That isn’t quite the whole story, but this is one setup that deserves to be kept under wraps before seeing the film. Since Rana and Emad are suddenly occupying this apartment, a case of mistaken identity befalls them, and their relationship starts to strain in the aftermath of that event. Just check out the symbolic imagery in the film still above: the crack in the window representative of the cracks in their foundation as a couple. The former tenant’s personal effects also become a symbol, as her stuff lingering behind represents the presence that won’t leave, and ultimately had a part in the mistaken identity.
The film’s use of the ongoing Death of a Salesman is apt, as Rana and Emad start to embody the tired weariness and poor communication of their stage roles in their real lives. By the time the credits start to role, the couple barely know themselves any longer. The final shots of “The Salesman” require a little bit of interpretation, but the viewer eventually realizes they fit the theme perfectly. The two see more recognition in their on-stage roles than they do in their real lives when all is said and done.
If there is a single word to best describe “The Salesman”, it would probably be ‘cerebral.’ Human change doesn’t happen overnight, and Farhadi doesn’t rush things, letting the characters set the slow-burn pace of their own dysfunction. This requires patience on behalf of the viewer, and even the payoff isn’t instant gratification. The viewer is going to have to mull this one over for awhile, letting their interpretations and opinion develop organically. Anyone willing to trust Farhadi and follow him down the rabbit hole will be rewarded with a thought-provoking and discussion worthy experience. There’s no reason why anyone shouldn’t dive right in.