The Salesman comes to the UK riding a wave of prestige from its recent Oscar win – a win that was, perhaps, cultivated by the political circumstances of its director being temporarily unable to travel to the United States. As a result, there is a tinge of worthy status attached to the movie. And why not? Asghar Farhadi is the masterful dramatist who brought us A Separation, and his latest certainly demonstrates that his formal chops haven’t diminished; it’s another wrenching, considered drama about human empathy pushed to its very limit. Yet what is somewhat unexpected about The Salesman is that it is, first and foremost, a genre film – a revenge thriller that plays like an Iranian, metafictional take on Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. And while Farhadi’s feature is primarily rooted in the exchange of powerful words, the omnipresent threat of violence means that it never quite manages to transcend its pulpy premise.
Farhadi regulars Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti play married couple Emad and Rana, who are forced to flee from their apartment when nearby construction causes the building’s foundations to break down. Their new place seems fine, except for the belongings left by the previous tenant, who, the couple learn from the neighbours, was likely a sex worker. And one day, when Rana is alone in the shower, she inadvertently lets in a disgruntled former customer, who brutally assaults her. Subsequent attempts by Emad to repair their domestic harmony are largely futile, as Rana no longer feels safe when left alone – and rather than, say, tackle the issue through therapy and dialogue, Emad responds to his uniquely male anguish by attempting to find the perpetrator himself.
A second layer is added by the fact that the couple are also taking part in a production of Death of a Salesman, playing the parts of Willy and Linda on a nightly basis. It’s a rather baffling and even pretentious storytelling choice; while there is an admirable resistance to drawing clear parallels between the theatre piece and the drama, it serves to do little except call attention to Emad and Rana’s role playing, which would likely be evident anyway. Farhadi is a skilled director, timing his beats well and filling his screen with a satisfying surplus of human activity. But there is an inescapable theatricality to the story, most evident in its stunningly tense but ultimately overwrought single-location conclusion.
The result is something that’s intensely admirable as a piece of writing, with scenes of electrifying danger and power, but The Salesman falls short of Farhadi’s transcendent standards.
The Salesman is released in selected cinemas on 17th March 2017.
Watch the trailer for The Salesman here: