Film review | The Salesman: The world makes victims of us all

The Salesman remains a deeply sensitive, engaging and – latterly – suspenseful work from a master of the craft • 4/5

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
4 April 2017, 7:35am
Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are a couple of stage actors whose relationship grows frayed after a home invasion incident
Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are a couple of stage actors whose relationship grows frayed after a home invasion incident
The latest film by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi may have won its Oscar for Best Picture among the most pointedly political time in American cinema history – certainly for our generation. There was a sense of poetic justice being meted out when Farhadi – who can already boast of a Best Foreign Film gong courtesy of his earlier masterpiece A Separation (2011) – was both nominated and ultimately won this year. 

Because Farhadi chose not to attend the ceremony in protest of President Donald Trump’s so-called – and much-maligned – Muslim ban, in protest of an action he himself compared to the political stance of certain ‘hardliners’ in Iran.

But now that the dust over that particular story has long settled – and Farhadi has in fact been awarded the Best Foreign Film Oscar – we can concentrate our sights on the film itself which is, once again, a doggedly realist and deeply poignant look at how political unease can worm into our day to day lives.

Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are a couple of stage actors living in Iran who, soon before a premiere of their troupe’s production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, are forced to uproot themselves from their home. The cause is not in fact a bomb or any kind of outward wartime intervention – it is in fact down to a digger boring into the foundations of a nearby home without prior notice, or indeed mercy.

However, a colleague of theirs is quick to find them a new place to stay nearby, assuring them that the acquaintance it belongs to will not have a problem with them staying over. But the couple’s sense of security is shattered when Rana is assaulted while she’s alone and waiting for Emad to return with groceries. While Rana recovers following a hospital stay and is just about able to carry on with the play, Emad becomes obsessed with seeking justice for the crime, and his mild mannered self soon reveals a vindictive and cruel streak, which threatens to tear the couple apart.

Comparing The Salesman to the superlative A Separation is a cruel business, but we may as well address the elephant in the room. And as it happens… no, A Separation will still beat The Salesman in a fight, no question about it. The earlier film is leaner and meaner, with a tight premise and a single, fragile but well-positioned development that threatens to implode its characters’ lives while we watch on, in delicious dread.

Pitiable: Farid Sajadhosseini
Pitiable: Farid Sajadhosseini
The Salesman, on the other hand, is a lot more densely populated – despite, at the end of the day, also having a couple at its centre, and it proceeds at too lax a pace for Farhadi to once again flex his Hitchcockian muscles to full effect. The emphasis on the mundane drudgery in what would otherwise be fairly extraordinary outside of Iran – though Malta’s reckless development spree does give one pause as to whether this film’s inciting incident could very well become the New Normal here soon enough – does in fact come across as just that for most of the running time, and as our thespian couple flits from domestic unease to on-stage stress a bit of a wearying ‘back and forth’ dynamic starts to grate on the narrative.

But all will be forgiven come the final act, where the nub of the story closes in with all of its claws pointed to our hearts, Farhadi having typically worked very hard to get us to the point where we’re glued to the screen. Aided by a masterful performance from Farid Sajadhosseini, who will move you to true, sublime troughs of pity, Farhadi allows himself a bravura flourish by turning the climax of his film – which is about a couple acting in a stage play – into a true theatrical set piece, with dialogue wielded like weapons and with fresh revelations suddenly tilting the film on its axis.

Though it may lose some of its steam round about the mid-point, The Salesman remains a deeply sensitive, engaging and – latterly – suspenseful work from a master of the craft. Oscar or no Oscar, The Salesman is yet another reminder of Farhadi’s skills both as a deeply humanist filmmaker, and a director capable of making taut, prolonged scenes that won’t leave your mind in a hurry.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...