Asghar Farhadi’s films are not merely experiences attuned to our emotional stimuli but broad ethical questions attuned to the 21st Century’s increasingly complicated moral climate. The Salesman, like A Separation or The Past before it, provokes fiery debate by way of searing drama. Neither as profound or incisive as the previous two films, The Salesman proves to be equally unsettling in its conclusions. The title, coming from Arthur Miller’s iconic stage play Death of a Salesman, invokes a worldwide tradition of drama (and fiction) as a ubiquitous moral authority to humanity’s great ethical challenges. Farhadi, a dramatist in every respect, approaches The Salesman like a humanist—inching towards compulsion and confrontation with overwhelming cruelty and unmistakable sympathy.
The Salesman opens on an empty stage, the lifeless sets and over-the-top lighting glare indicate a hollow vanity to stage craft, but the illusion becomes more eerie as Farhadi lingers on it. The stage will be the platform of an Iranian production of Death of a Salesman. Married couple Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) will star as its two lead characters, Willy and Linda Loman respectively. Death of a Salesman, a magical realist’s interpretation of dreamy materialism and tainted American values, is an odd, almost diametric allusion to Farhadi’s Iranian neorealist study on fundamental human morality.
The film starts with Emad and Rana, due to hazards outside of their control, moving into a new apartment where a supposedly promiscuous young woman lived before them. The previous tenant’s mysterious past reemerges with devastating results when Rana is left viciously attacked by an unknown assailant. Shortly after the attack, Emad discovers that the assailant has left a few things behind: bloody footprints and keys to a truck. Not wanting to turn the incident into a scandal, Emad and Rana do not call the police. Emad, devastated by his wife’s assault, but unfettered, sleuths the attacker out himself in hopes to enact a form of personal justice.
Farhadi doesn’t explore Emad’s investigation to a great extant, instead he unravels Emad’s fury and how it plays off Rana’s guilt, allowing their identities to thrive under strenuous trauma. Emad sticks to his principles, so much so that he refuses to eat his wife’s food when he learns that she had unknowingly used money left by her assailant to buy it. Rana, traumatized and alone, almost forcibly tries to forget about her attacker. Of course this is impossible. The crushing discontent of Farhadi’s characters begin to illuminate realities shaping Iranian social conditions. The intolerance, wrath and consequence of Farhadi’s The Salesman begin to shape a scenario in which seemingly conscionable principles can guide honest men into committing unconscionable acts.
The Salesman’s final third, a harrowing sequence of comeuppance fashioned as humiliating repentance, turns into a study on the disguises people wear and the illusion of morality. The very purpose of Emad’s revenge begins as an unquestionable enactment of justice, but Farhadi, constantly reworking his character’s motive and redefining what crime and punishment truly mean, effectively blur the virtues justifying Emad’s revenge. It is among Farhadi’s most unforgettable sequences, not so much about conflict as A Separation and The Past were, but confrontation, what’s truly sacrificed when human dignity is at stake.
Arthur Miller’s surrealist play about characters dreaming of the good life almost seems to be a stretch from the nagging cynicism of Farhadi’s The Salesman, but Farhadi seems aware of that. Emad, performing in front of a live audience, goes off-script and nearly assaults a costar as he rewords lines from Miller’s play. Not even the power of Miller’s writing can contain Emad’s anger, or express the depths of his anguish. Farhadi adopts playwright Arthur Miller as both proud heritage and striking cultural contrast. It is, in a way, emblematic of Asghar Farhadi’s great character dramas. Farhadi, a dramatist through-and-through, sublimates a moral outcry, unique to his people, into performance art—legible to anyone. When The Salesman ends on a makeup chair Farhadi seems to hint at the undying untruths which varnish the lives of its characters. Ironically, we leave it to the unfettered, unspoken truths of fiction, written by men like Miller or Farhadi, to illuminate deeper social realities.