THE SALESMAN (France | Iran/TBC/123mins)
Directed by Asghar Farhadi. Starring Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini
THE PLOT: In present day Iran, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) awake to find their apartment building crumbing. With nowhere to live, they jump at the chance to take an apartment owned by their friend and co-star in an amateur production of Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’. When Rana unwittingly opens the door to a stranger and is violently attacked, Emad sets out to find justice for his wife, even if he struggles to understand her suffering.
THE VERDICT: Rather similar in theme to Cristian Mungiu’s ‘Graduation’, ‘The Salesman’ is also screening in competition at Cannes this year, and like the Mungiu drama, ‘The Salesman’ could make a strong statement about culture and silence in Iran but decides instead to hammer home obvious metaphors.
The cast do well in the film, with Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini leading the film as married couple Rana and Enad. The performances feel based in reality and are engaging, but the audience often struggles with what seems like cultural differences, as Rana keeps her trauma to herself in an apparent attempt to protect her pride and her reputation, even though neighbours and friends already know what happened to her.
Asghar Fahardi’s screenplay pits the family drama against Miller’s play in an attempt to draw parallels between the two, which only really works in the closing moments of the film, and even then, this is heavy handed and obvious. The relationship and energy between the two main characters of the film is continually shifting, but it is not always understandable, as secrecy and mixed messages seem to be the order of the day. As well as this, there are entire sections of the film that feel surplus to requirements, meaning this back and forth story becomes drawn out due to abandoned cars and a reluctance to involve the police.
As director, Farhadi makes the characters feel rounded and believable, even as their motivations are unclear. The pacing of the film struggles through unnecessarily drawn out situations, and metaphors that lack subtlety and grace. There is a worthwhile story to be told here, but clarity is needed to make the film work and is sincerely lacking in ‘The Salesman’.
In all, ‘The Salesman’ could well have been an examination of culture and secrets in Iran, but it shies away from really examining the issues that motivate the characters. Taraneh Alidoosti and Shabab Hosseini are strong, but they are continually fighting against a screenplay that wants to give as little away as possible.
Review by Brogen Hayes

Cannes Review - The Salesman
Review by Brogen Hayes
2.0Heavy Handed
  • filmbuff2011

    Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi recently scooped his second Oscar for The Salesman. Of course, that comes with a whole political angle too given recent events in America. Farhadi declined an offer to attend the ceremony and instead issued a spiriting statement about diversity and empathy. The latter is a theme in the film.

    Emad (Shahab Hosseini) is a teacher in Tehran. He is also preparing to mount a local production of Arthur Miller’s acclaimed play Death Of A Salesman, in which he will star along with his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). When their house becomes unstable due to structural faults, they have to leave with their young son. A theatre colleague of Emad’s offers him a place to stay. It’s shabbier than what Emad and Rana had before, but will do. The previous tenant left a lot of her stuff behind. One night, Rana buzzes in what she thinks is her husband and leaves the front door open. Emad comes home later on to discover that she’s been assaulted by a male stranger. She’s unwilling to discuss what really happened, out of shame and what the neighbours might think. This causes tensions between the couple. He decides not to go to the police and instead investigates and takes matters into his own hands. It appears that their new home was previously occupied by a lady of the night and the intruder may have been a client. All of this will affect not only their relationship, but also the play…

    The Salesman is a slow-burn domestic drama that is common of Farhadi. He likes to put his characters in realistic situations, turn up the heat gradually and watch his characters and their apparently loving relationships start to fracture. The backdrop of Death And The Salesman is an interesting parallel too, though the premise is very much Farhadi’s. The greatest strength of the film is in the writing, which is done in a way that is accessible and quietly gripping. Emad is a man who is simply trying to do the right thing for his family, but he should be thinking of the weighty consequences of his actions. Working again with frequent collaborators Hosseini and Alijoosti, Farhadi teases out great performances from them, which speak far beyond cultural interpretations of dealing with guilt and shame. Empathy becomes a factor later on too, as we discover that the intruder is not all that he seems. The performances here are well-judged and satisfyingly complex.

    If there’s one fault in the film though, it’s clearly in the third act. The story becomes increasingly drawn-out, delaying a resolution. Emad’s behaviour becomes questionable until a reveal shifts audience sympathies. Farhadi could have got to this resolution a bit faster, given that the film is just over the 2-hour mark. The lasting impression of The Salesman is that it’s a decent drama about how two people deal with a traumatic experience within the confines of their marriage, their immediate domestic environment and the listening walls of their community. It’s a good film that is worth seeking out but for this reviewer’s money, the wonderful Toni Erdmann should have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. ***