Stunningly realised from the opening moments to the final frame, The Salesman is a thoroughly engrossing and perfectly performed work from one of the most gifted directors working today. A mesmerising psychological and moral drama about guilt and the pursuit of vengeance from Iranian film maker Asghar Farhadi, The Salesman is the latest in a series of very impressive films to emerge from Iran in recent years. Whether it is the subversive work of Jafar Panahi (Offside, Tehran Taxi) or Farhadi’s two previous productions – the Academy Award-winning A Separation (2011) and The Past (2013) – or the recent Daughter from Reza Mirkarimi, there has been an influx of films that not only deliver compelling narratives, but also offer considerable insight into the vitality of life in contemporary Iran.
The film opens with a shot of a double bed before the camera pulls back to reveal that the bed is, in fact, part of a set on a theatre stage. From here we cut to the frantic evacuation of a crumbling apartment building where we meet Emad and Rena Etasami, the married couple at the centre of the drama that unfolds. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) is a high school teacher and both he and Rena (Taraneh Alidoosti) are part of an amateur theatre company performing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, with Emad in the lead role as Willie Loman. Now homeless, the couple are offered accommodation by a member of the acting troupe and the apartment seems perfect – well as good as you could possibly expect under the circumstances – until one night the apartment’s buzzer sounds and Rena, thinking it is Emad, buzzes him in and returns to her shower, only to be attacked by an intruder. We never witness the attack, nor do we have any knowledge about who is responsible until much later in the film.
Emad sets out to find the culprit who, in his hasty retreat, has left behind some significant clues, not the least of which are the keys to the car that remains parked outside. Frustrated by Rena’s refusal to involve the police and plagued by his guilt at being unable to protect his wife, Emad begins to unravel in his relentless pursuit of the attacker, all the while trying to juggle his teaching responsibilities and his rehearsal and performance schedule at the theatre. As Emad’s obsession grows, his relationship with those around him – his neighbours, fellow actors, his students and even his wife – deteriorates. The primal vindictiveness that possesses him is a far cry from the compassionate Emad we meet in the opening moments of the film as he helps a neighbour’s disabled son out of the crumbling building. His hip, sophisticated, easy-going nature has long since disappeared by the time he – and we – learns who is responsible. It is a subtle yet supremely powerful performance from Hosseini as a guy so fixated on his mission that he seems prepared to sacrifice everything he holds dear and, when he finally realises what he stands to lose, it may well be too late.
There is nothing particularly ethno-specific about the story or the course of events as the narrative could have been set anywhere in the world without any real changes necessary, but there are a couple of fleeting moments that remind us of the government scrutiny that operates in Iran. At one point, one of Emad’s cast members raises concerns about whether they will need to make changes to the play should the censor turn up for the opening night show, while another scene sees Emad informed that the text he had chosen for his students was deemed inappropriate. Neither of these is given any great emphasis by Farhadi, who also wrote the screenplay, and it could be argued that the latter is hardly any different to the debates around the appropriateness of particular texts that seem to emerge quite regularly in western educational discourse. The performances across the board are exceptional, with Alidoosti imbuing Rana with an underlying decency despite the state of disorientation in which she finds herself. Even the supporting players deliver fine performances and there is one in the latter stages that is so effective it will leave you questioning whether you should feel pity or anger for the character. Full of moral ambiguities and constructed with precision by Farhadi, cinematographer Hossein Jafarian and editor Hayedah Safiyari, The Salesman is an exemplary example of a film in which style and substance are delivered in equal measure.