Film review: The Salesman

by Peter Calder / 19 April, 2017
Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) in The Salesman.

Patient storytelling is aided by understated performances in this Oscar winner.

Iranian director Farhadi’s new film won him a second Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (his first, in 2012, was for A Separation), although he boycotted the ceremony in protest at Donald Trump’s travel ban.

It is the latest in a deeply impressive catalogue of intricate neo-realist dramas, morally complex stories that explore questions of class and gender specific to the director’s homeland without straining for universality, yet play to Western eyes as intensely engrossing, even thrilling.

The title alludes to Arthur Miller’s American tragedy – the film’s main characters, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), are playing Willy and Linda respectively in a modest production – although the significance of this link, which is existential rather than narrative, doesn’t become clear until the end: it’s a slightly clumsy contrivance in a film otherwise devoid of them.

In a dramatic opening scene, Emad and Rana are hurriedly vacating their Tehran apartment building, which is in danger of imminent collapse. It’s a metaphor less heavy-handed than it sounds, and the electrifying sequence, framed as a panic of criss-crossing staircases and glimpses through internal windows, is an early demonstration of the director’s awesome formal control.

A fellow actor offers the homeless couple the use of a tired rooftop flat, in which the previous tenant has left her belongings cluttering one room. When Rana, alone in the flat, is assaulted, neither she nor the audience sees the perpetrator, but Emad sets out to track him down.

It sounds like a simple thriller, part horror movie, part revenge tragedy, but Farhadi, whose screenplay scatters oblique and tantalising hints, creates a moral landscape of complicated topography: quickly, we realise that he is more upset about the assault than she is; slowly, we become aware that a growing gulf between husband and wife is not new; and as his investigations lead him into the city’s minority Azerbaijani community, even non-Iranian viewers will sense the ethnic and class tension that’s been thrown into the mix.

As a story of crime and punishment, it offers no easy answers, much less cheap catharsis. Whodunnit, in short, is less important than what it has cost, and what will happen next. More than most, Farhadi is alive to the myriad complexities of everyday experience.

Meanwhile, his patient storytelling is assisted by wonderfully understated performances, in particular those of Hosseini and Alidoosti (both Farhadi veterans: she played the title role in About Elly). The result is a film in which righteousness meets anxiety, with a finale that will have you closer to the edge of your seat than any shoot-out ever could. ••••½

IN CINEMAS NOW

This article was first published in the April 8, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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