Cinema Review: The Salesman

Asghar Farhardi has, for my money, written and directed two of the finest films of the last decade. This and A Separation (2011), both Oscar winners for Best Foreign Film, are set in Tehran and they both deal with the moral and emotional extremes of everyday life. Nothing is absolutely right, nothing absolutely wrong in his stories, but they are peopled by characters (like ourselves) who believe that both of those extremes might actually exist. Schoolteacher Emad Etesami and his wife Rana are rehearsing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Home alone one night in their new apartment, before entering the shower, Rana opens the front door for Emad, who she thinks is coming up the stairs. But it is not her husband. A stranger walks into the bathroom instead and Rana ends up in hospital with cuts to her head. What exactly happened? Who was the visitor? And what has it to do with the ‘promiscuous woman’ who was the flat’s previous tenant? Typically, this mysterious woman never appears, despite being the catalyst for the drama that follows… Or was the catalyst the couple’s forced change of address? These things, as Farhardi makes clear, can never be known. He has a genius for exploring the human psyche and he does it without CGI, without guns and glamour, and except for incidental music, as on a radio or performed by players at the theatre, he does it without a soundtrack to prod his audience’s reactions – you hear cars on the street, as you do in any congested city. His script is layered and nuanced, turning on unexpected revelations – voicemail on a phone – and never letting you feel certain about any judgment that you might be headed towards. His stars, Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti, are superb, as is the support cast in a gem of a movie that contains no heroes, no villains. Miller’s Willie Lomax was broken by the futility of the daily grind, but Emad and Rana will endure it and rise above it… Or will they? To some questions there are no answers.

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