Film Review | Oscar Winning The Salesman Cements Asghar Farhadi’s Storytelling Power

The adjective that often comes up when discussing the movies of Asghar Farhadi is human. Between his subtle direction, the masterful turns he mines from his frequent acting collaborators and the three-dimensional characters he writes – there is an enhanced realism. The people in his films do not fall into classic cinema archetypes. Instead, they feel like real people trapped in awful situations. In other hands, these would be standard thrillers. Yet, Farhadi turns them into profound human dramas. This trend continues with The Salesman.

The Salesman is in cinemas from March 17th. -
The Salesman is in cinemas from March 17th. Source

The Oscar-winning The Salesman focuses upon kind school teacher and actor, Emad (Shahab Hosseini – winner of Best Actor at Cannes for his role) and his wife, Rana (Teranah Alidoosti – the titular character in About Elly). While putting on a performance of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, the couple are forced to move home when their apartment shows signs of collapse. Their friend, Babak (Babak Karimi) secures them a new house. However, not long after, it’s discovered that the previous tenant was a sex worker. Then Rana is assaulted while her husband is out by an unknown intruder.  The drama follows the damage caused by the incident as Emad attempts to find the culprit.

The Salesman sees Farhadi tackling a revenge thriller – following the legal battle of A Separation and the Hitchcockian intrigue of both About Elly and The Past. Yet, while his latest in plot bears similarities to movies like Death Wish or even more recently The Gift, its radically different in execution. Revenge to Farhadi – best exemplified by the utterly tense and protracted scene where Emad comes face to face with his wife’s attacker – is messy. In typical films of this ilk (e.g. Park Chan Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy), the person seeking retribution has a plan to torture, psychologically or physically, those that wronged them – a strategy generally adhered to entirely. However, Farhadi’s more human worldview confronts the difficulty of committing violence even in the act of revenge. As Emad lashes out at Rana’s attacker, it’s awkward. One can see that he doesn’t want to be violent but that he can’t stop thinking about what the person did to his wife – inflicting shocking sudden slaps as his mind goes to these dark places but looking incredibly shameful following his outburst (a masterclass of internalising by Hosseini). To the Iranian auteur, revenge is far more complex than an eye for an eye.

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Like much Farhadi’s previous work, The Salesman expertly balances genre thrills with human drama. For example, the movie is incredibly unpredictable as the writer-director continuously reveals juicy twists to keep the audience guessing. Yet, he isn’t afraid to take his time exploring the effect Rana’s attack has on both her and Emad. While she struggles with what appears to be a form of PTSD, he becomes fuelled by a masculine, almost toxic rage, to defend his family – the latter of which shares passing thematic similarities to the play within the film. Farhadi also briefly tackles Iranian social issues such as censorship. An interesting scene sees Emad being told that the classic literature he planned to teach his students has been deemed inappropriate by the school board.

The film doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of About Elly or A Separation. It’s ending, just slightly, binds itself in one too many moral dilemmas (which may be intentional – tying into the theme of revenge as being disordered and chaotic – but doesn’t quite land dramatically). Also, its female players are not as well explored as Emad. Despite sterling work by Teranah Alidoosti (who evokes memories of a young Marion Cottilard), her character is a little two-dimensional – eventually coming to terms with her attack in a very predictable manner. Meanwhile, the prostitute who kick-starts all of Emad and Rana’s trouble remains unseen – receiving the brunt of the blame for all that occurs. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but feels a tad strange coming from Farhadi who is usually note-perfect in examining all sides of a perspective, never short-changing anyone’s point-of-view. Yet, even with these niggling problems, The Salesman is undoubtedly powerful and intense. It’s a notch-above many a revenge thriller and signifies another high-point in near-perfect filmography.

The Salesman is in cinemas from March 17th.

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