For MSM, “my Persian son”
The Salesman is the newest film from Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi, creator and Oscar winner (for Best Foreign Film) for 2011’s A Separation. As with A Separation, The Saleman is a meticulously crafted, well-acted film with moments of intense dramatic impact. Unlike A Separation, The Salesman tries to do a bit too much, and ultimately can’t quite decide what kind of a film it wants to be.
The film opens on a set, which provides a near-meta moment for the viewer that sends the head in a few different directions. Then the set turns out to be a stage set, not a film set, and we open with the Grand Suggestion of a metaphor. Oh, they’re doing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (now of course I’m remembering the film’s title, and wondering….) and I am signaled that there will be a connection between the events/themes of the play and what I’m about to see as a film. That’s a lot of weight to put on a film from its onset.
Because “reviews” of films seem to have to regurgitate the plot, I will oblige to an extent, for a reason. There is an apartment that our leads need to move into because their apartment building is cracking and needs to be evacuated (a rather imposing metaphor for what—Iran, the government, the lives of the principals?). Their new apartment used to be the home of a loose woman that draws a visit by someone who doesn’t know there are new tenants. With some discretion and the use of a Hitchcockian shot, we are led to an awareness of a violent, and perhaps sexually violent, act, and begin to see the film as a drama about violence and its aftermath–in this case its effect on a marriage, a stage production, friendships, etc. But then the film evolves into something different, which viewers will have to discover for themselves. Narratively, and emotionally, the twists and turns of the story veer from its original storyline to encompass a whole new story, one that isn’t just indicated, but explored, nearly making for short film within the film.
The film has a realist flavor, combining the modern realist cinematic approach of the Dardenne brothers (L’Enfant; The Kid on the Bike; Deux Jours, Une Nuit) with classic Hollywood editing patterns that keep the drama moving and the style from becoming too self-conscious. The acting is uniformly strong, with even the minor players playing fully lived-in characters who never come near playing either stock or stereotype (especially Babak Karimi as Babak). Shahab Hosseini as the male lead is the standout, holding the film together playing a slightly entitled, intelligent, talented man who is revealed to be less emotionally mature than either he or anyone around him thought. Tareney Alidoosti plays a necessarily more recessive role as wife and victim, but one who ultimately gains an emotional strength as the film moves into its “second story.”
It’s unfair, but the film suffers from its comparison to the superior A Separation, which focused its drama more simply, but allowed the viewer moment after moment of discovery and connection in a way this film doesn’t. That film’s “themes” were more subdued, less obvious, and were submerged under the narrative. Here, the metaphors start in the first minute, and continue to pull the viewer out of the admittedly strong story as we wonder if we’re watching a drama (and which kind—family, marital, crime?), an artistic stage-film compare-and-contrast expression, a socio-political commentary on the distrust of law enforcement in Iran, or a meditation on the power and effects of revenge on the soul and relationships. And then of course, are we to take in Shakespeare’s dictum that “all the world’s a stage,” etc., and apply that to what we’re seeing? Finally, the accumulated weight of all these connections and suggestions tend to dilute the focus and impact of the film, which nevertheless, even in its disparate directions, still manages to finish out with impact and a certain depth.
Farhadi has admitted that his love of theatre had led him to want to combine that love and expression with a film story. It’s been done well over the years by many others. Here, it’s not quite the most elegant fit, and with the several other dramatic and thematic shifts, has resulted, with all its stylistic confidence and uniformly excellent acting, in a film that has been too weighed down and bent just a little out of shape.