In 2012, acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for his magnificent divorce drama A Separation, which was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay. (It’s really rare for non-English-language films to be nominated outside the Best Foreign Language Film category.) He was invited to join the Academy — an invitation often extended to those who win Oscars — and it is believed he accepted (though because AMPAS does not make its ranks public, this isn’t certain). This year, Farhadi’s latest film, The Salesman, has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (among a slew of other noms and wins at festivals last year, and from critics’ groups’ year-end awards). He will not be able to attend the ceremony in Los Angeles at the end of the month because of President Donald Trump’s ban on travel into the US for citizens of Iran (among other countries).
To smack bigotry and isolationism in the face would be reason enough alone to seek out The Salesman, currently in limited release in the US. But it is far from the only reason… and in fact, the best reason might be the best reason to see any of Farhadi’s work: because it is so beautifully human. (See also his 2013 film The Past.) Probably anyone who would voluntarily attend a Farsi-language film doesn’t need this reminder anyway, but Farhadi’s movies are steeped in the universality of what it means to be a person alive on the planet today: yes, even people living under a totalitarian theocracy are not so very different from someone living in the United States. (And maybe, if we’re very unlucky, even that difference is going to narrow.) The people who populate The Salesman do not seem strange or alien: they look and feel very very familiar.
That’s obvious, isn’t it? It should go without saying, shouldn’t it? And yet acknowledgement of the basic commonality among people everywhere gets lost so often, even by those of us who are the best-intentioned. So here is yet another movie serving as an empathy machine — we cannot ever have too many of them — to let us feel the sameness deep in our bones and in our hearts, and not just as a rational appreciation.
When you heard the title — The Salesman — did you imagine that a central character would be someone who makes a living shifting, I dunno, plastics or something? Ha. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana Etesami (Taraneh Alidoosti) — “they’re in culture,” as a neighbor proudly describes them — are acting in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in Tehran. (See? Smarty-pants liberal urban intellectuals are everywhere!) Just as amateur enthusiasts, you see, not professional actors; Emad’s job is teaching literature to university students. (Rana doesn’t seem to work, which is, alas, pretty typical for even educated women in Iran these days. But the director of their play is a woman; women here find ways to fulfill themselves in the face of restrictions on their activities.) There is much discussion to be had about how the themes of the play seep over into Emad and Rana’s real life after a physical attack on Rana in their new apartment. A visitor mistakes her for the woman who previously lived there, and leaves her bloodied, traumatized, and unwilling to be alone in what is supposed to be their new home. It leaves Emad obsessed with finding his wife’s assailant, either by going to the police — which she refuses to do for reasons he cannot seem to understand; so much shame would be involved! — or by tracking the man down himself. So now we have a somewhat delusional man (like the play’s Willy Loman) who doesn’t quite understand how the world works, or doesn’t want to, and a weary woman (like Willy’s wife, Linda, in the play) who is much more grounded than her husband. It’s not a perfect or direct analogy, and it isn’t meant to be: there’s also a concurrent metaphor to be argued about how Emad and Rana are playing roles offstage as much as in the theater, both with each other as their relationship is tested and with their neighbors and colleagues, pretending that everything is just fine when it isn’t. It all works as a delicately realized portrait of a marriage under strain that could easily be taking place in New York, London, or Tokyo.
Some of the concrete details of The Salesman are a bit strained: one of the big clues Emad has for hunting down Rana’s attacker is that he left his car and its keys behind, which seems an unlikely thing for anyone to do. The film doesn’t quite work on the level of the suspense thriller that it is structured as. But the emotional details ring true, which is much more important and moving. Even the one significant departure from how this story might be told in a Western movie only underscores, ironically, a similarity. Emad and Rana’s is a culture unwilling to speak bluntly about sexual matters. No one seems to be able to bring themselves to say the word “prostitute” in reference to the previous tenant; she merely, ahem, had a lot of visitors, or — as direct as anyone gets — was “promiscuous.” More stinging, though, is that no one seems able to say the word rape, not even to ascertain whether Rana was, in fact, actually raped in the assault. (We do not see what happened between Rana and her assailant, and the few clues we are offered as to what transpired are ambiguous.) A Western movie might make no bones about how, precisely, a woman was attacked, but our discomfort with the topic is not so very different. Rana’s anguish in the aftermath is a trauma that might accompany any significant bodily violation, even if it were “merely” being confronted by a strange man in her own bathroom and knocked unconscious. And Emad’s inability to know how to comfort his wife is a familiar male reaction to frustrated emotion: he directs it outward, at his quest for justice, and also inward on himself, in his simmering rage.
There’s “no harm in asking questions,” Emad tells his lit class when they’re discussing books, but much of the pain all around in The Salesman comes from an unwillingness to deal directly with one’s own life: there is harm in not asking questions, and answering them. Which was, perhaps, the problem of Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, too. And is, perhaps, a problem many of us would recognize, no matter where we live or what language we speak.