Film Review: The Salesman

Life of a Salesman: Is This the Enemy?

Asghar Farhadi may be to Iran’s screen what Arthur Miller was to the American stage.  His 2011 A Separation, a searing account of an Iranian couple’s divorce, won the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.  A Separation’s script also scored Farhadi a nomination for the Best Writing, Original Screenplay Academy Award.  Now, the writer/director’s newest feature, The Salesman, is again in contention for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (although nominated for the Golden Globe in the same category, The Salesman lost to Elle).

The Salesman opens with a natural disaster in Tehran that foreshadows the tumultuous event the movie is centered on.  The damage caused by the upheaval forces a married middle class couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini, a Farhadi regular who won Cannes’ Best Actor award for The Salesman) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti, appearing here in her fourth Farhadi film), to relocate.  Their quest for a new place to live is complicated by the fact that the new flat they rent had been inhabited by a prostitute, who proves to be uncooperative.  The husband and wife’s troubled move sets the stage for a sexual violation of Rana, which in turn launches Emad on an obsessive crusade to capture and punish the culprit, Babak (Babak Karimi).

The mood spun by the skillful Farhadi is low key; although The Salesman has a Neo-Realist vibe and, perhaps at times, a Film Noir feel, the auteur’s use of metaphor heightens his drama beyond naturalism.  Emad, whose day job is teaching literature in high school, is appearing at night with Rana in a production of Miller’s Death of Salesman at what appears to be the Tehran equivalent of an L.A. 99-seat intimate theater or an Off-Broadway playhouse.

The parallels between Farhadi’s film and Miller’s play and the characters the screen actors depict on the boards in the play-within-a-movie – Emad portrays Willy Loman, with Rana as the traveling salesman’s wife, Linda – is by far the best, most thought-provoking thing about this 125 minute motion picture.  In an uncredited interview in press notes provided at a private screening, Farhadi held forth on Death of Salesman, stating:

“The most important thing is the social critique of a period in history when the sudden transformation of urban America caused the ruin of a certain social class.  A category of people who couldn’t adapt to this rapid modernization got crushed.  In that sense, the play resonates strongly with the current situation in my country.  Things are changing at a breathtaking pace and it’s adapt or die,” Farhadi said about life in the Islamic Republic.

The Salesman also deals with the concept of “honor killings,” wherein usually Muslim male members of families are “duty-bound” to revenge the breaking of sexual codes generally regarding female relatives.  Perhaps through the thoroughly not-so-modern Emad’s quest for vengeance, Farhadi, an astute observer, is dramatizing a critique of this aspect of contemporary Islamic culture in a way that will pass muster with the mullahs’ censors?  Like Hollywood filmmakers after the so-called Production Code was enacted in 1934, Iranian artists have to play footsy with the motion picture powers-that-be.  Instead of the Hays Office and studio chiefs, Farhadi and his colleagues have to contend with the ayatollahs’ henchmen.

Farhadi discussed the phenomenon of censorship and more at a great January 7 symposium co-presented by the American Cinematheque and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre.  All five directors of the Golden Globe nominees for Best Foreign Language Film gathered for a provocative discussion moderated by HFPA’s Sam Asi, including: Elle’s Paul Verhoeven, Neruda’s Pablo Larraín, Divines’ Houda Benyamina, Toni Erdmann’s (which is also Oscar-nommed in this category) Maren Ade and Farhadi.  Although they speak some English, he and Benyamina were joined by interpreters on director’s chairs in front of the Egyptian’s screen, which the panelists’ images were projected onto.

Asked by the moderator about working underneath the gaze of the Islamic Republic’s watchdogs, Farhadi thoughtfully, drolly replied: “If there’s a rock in the water, the water still finds a way around it.  You find a new language because there’s censorship.  Censors think that the creativity of filmmakers is thanks to them.  But in the long term they destroy creativity.  Because the limitations become a part of the filmmaker’s personality.  That’s the danger.”

Asi shrewdly pointed out that three of the Globe-nominated international cinema works – Elle, Divines and The Salesman – dealt with sexual attacks and asked Farhadi about the nature of “punishment and forgiveness.”  The contemplative Iranian director answered: “The days of cinema giving answers is over.  Cinema should ask questions…Everyone in the world, every country is involved in vengeance…The law is in no way concerned with reasons.  It’s never via law that we’ll achieve truth.”

Farhadi also generated laughter in the Egyptian’s packed audience of 600 foreign film fans by declaring that despite the fact his movies often depict marital woes, he and his wife have a very happy relationship.  Be that as it may, the humanity of the characters who happen to be Iranian and Muslim in Farhadi’s all-too-human movies raises the same question folksinger Phil Ochs asked when he defiantly printed English translations of Chairman Mao’s poems instead of jacket notes on a 1966 album cover: Is this the enemy?

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