Film Review: The Salesman

Trussing Man’s Foundations

At the beginning of the (deservedly) Oscar winning ‘The Salesman’ (2016) by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (who also won an Oscar in 2011 for ‘A Separation’) we see an empty forlorn bed as part of a stage set for a local theatre group’s rendition of ‘Death of A Salesman’ by Arthur Miller. It’s soon followed by some enormous cracks in the wall of an apartment block, that seem to have been caused by redevelopment work, or a recent earthquake. The destruction could be Man made, or an act of nature, ether way society/community/connections are crumbling.

Whether you know about the tale that’s about to unfold or not, there’s a sense of a forboding threat about, encroaching on the structures that we mere mortals construct around us, be it art, our homes or indeed relationships. We build devices physically and mentally in the hope that our precious treasures will be protected from outside forces, but what about when the threat comes from within ourselves?

Rana Etesami (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad Etesami (Shahab Hosseini) are a young Iranian couple living in present day Tehran. Whatever their backgrounds there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of genuine affection between them as they must leave their subsiding apartment. The place actually feels like it’s about to crash to the ground any second.

Forced to look for another home and as ‘luck’ would have it a member of their theatre group (performing Miller’s play) has a place available immediately as the ‘promiscuous’ previous tenant has had to swiftly move on, clearly as she has left a lot of her belongings behind. This being a ridiculously patriarchal society and somewhat conservative to put it mildly, ‘promiscuous’ basically means she was a prostitute, who had many ‘visitors’ according to the rather bitchy neighbours, but no one will actually say it out loud, only in slight daggered comments.

One evening while Rana is waiting for her husband to come home, through an everyday normal sequence of events, she is attacked in the apartment. Only to be found by neighbours bruised, bloodied and naked in the shower.

Upon his return, Emad naturally panicked and fearful eventually finds her at the hospital being treated. Representative of a repressed society it is stunning how much we don’t actually find out about what happened. Bits of information are dropped, but there is no clarity to the attack, lots of it are ambiguous to say the least. And clearly the less said the better, however these silent fractures soon become fissures in the relationship.

Rana comes home and slowly begins to try to heal herself in what is an emotional vacuum of a home. Emad has a very masculine approach to this, and rather than being a support for his wife, slowly begins to feel he must take action against the attacker and starts to do some amateur detective work. Despite him being a supposedly educated individual (a school teacher) and playing the lead role in ‘Death of A Salesman’ he regresses into a vengeful state as it becomes very clear he feels more attacked/shamed than his wife, his masculine pride has been severely dented (as is the lead character in the play) and the perpetrator must be hunted down for retribution, seemingly at any cost.

It’s a fascinating study on human behaviour. There are some great moments where the seemingly only sincere conversations between the couple are when they are playing opposite each other during the performance of the play, where the scripted words take on a profound and real resonance, screaming the internal pains that they can’t say to each other off the stage. It has a look and naturalistic everyday working class feel of the works of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach capturing stunning performances from all involved but particularly the leads. This may be a world that the West isn’t allowed to know much about, but there are blatantly far more obvious similarities between our cultures than differences.

The entire piece has the gravitas of an excellent/intelligent stage play too, a taught thriller with nods to Hitchcock but in an entirely familiar and down to earth environment.

Brilliantly written with a rewarding slow burn of story and character evolution that you’ll never guess where it’s going, but ultimately makes you think who actually is the true monster in this situation (are they born or do people become them), which is a phenomenally powerful device to pull off successfully.

The acute tension of the opening returns for the end of the movie that is masterfully ramped up to what is the stuff of great Greek plays. All that has been delicately laid down in the hours before all comes crashing together with a heart stopping intensity that is on one level a conversation, but on another handing your soul and humanity to the devil.

10/10 ‘The Salesman’ is in cinemas now

Steve Clarke

Born in Celtic lands, nurtured in art college, trained by the BBC, inspired by Hunter S. Thompson and released onto the battlefront of all things interesting/inspiring/good vibes... people, movies, music, clubbing, revolution, gigs, festivals, books, art, theatre, painting and trying to find letters on keyboards in the name of flushthefashion. Making sure it's not quite on the western front... and beyond.