An Iranian master at work

The Salesman
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi
124 minutes, rated M
4 stars

Asghar Farhadi was six years old when the Iranian revolution took place in 1979. He has known nothing but the regime’s boundaries around his artistic life and yet he has done great work within them. Last week this film brought him his second Oscar for best foreign language film, joining a very select group that includes Fellini, Bergman and De Sica.

The restrictions on modern life in Teheran are everywhere in The Salesman, the story of a young, educated couple who are both actors: Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini). The play they are trying to perform, a translation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, keeps having lines cut by the censor. A scene requiring a half-naked prostitute has to be performed by a fully-clothed actress. When something untoward happens to Rana off stage, the fear on Emad’s face is as much about the authorities as the neighbours. Trouble can come from anywhere.

Iranian film-makers are expert at weaving criticisms into the fabric of their films, in ways that censors will find hard to identify and excise. Here Farhadi sews that meaning into the characters themselves. Their reactions to stress tell us a lot about their lives, which is to say that Farhadi works like a dramatist, applying the blowtorch to see what his characters will do under pressure. He trained in theatre and it shows in the way he mounts his films, focussing usually on one young couple, as in A Separation (his first Oscar winner from 2011) and The Past, the film before this one. That was set in Paris – a warning perhaps that he is interested in universal themes, not simply domestic complaints.

The Salesman has faced some conservative opposition in Iran and it’s easy to see why. It presents a harrowing picture of a society riven with class divisions, paralysing social constraints and disappointment – which is perhaps why Farhadi chose Arthur Miller’s 1949 demolition of the American Dream as the play within the film. It might be a clever way of evening up the scales for the powers that be: see how demoralising America can be? He was probably hoping they would not focus on another reading: these two societies are alike, and equally harsh on their losers.

The film begins with a terrifying earth tremor. Handsome, confident Emad and the beautiful Rana must move apartments, and quickly. Their old building is full of cracks. Babak, one of their fellow actors (Babak Karimi) offers an apartment he owns. When they arrive, the clothes of the former tenant, a woman, are still there. Babak says she will collect her stuff soon. Impatiently, they bundle all her stuff on the terrace outside where the rain gets to it.

Emad teaches in a boys’ school. At night, he plays Willy Loman with Rana as Willy’s wife Linda. These two are like a Teheran power couple: they’ve got everything cooking, although they remain outwardly modest. Rana hopes to fall pregnant soon. Instead, she is attacked while in the shower in the new apartment. Emad finds her on the floor, a huge gash in her head, the front door open. She survives but terribly beaten up. Who could do this thing and why did Rana open the door?

One of the strengths of Farhadi’s scripts is that we never know where he’s heading; we do know he’ll take us a long way. That is so rare. It gives his films great tension and dimension. His characters may have sophistication and learning, but they are vulnerable. A neighbour might be watching; a thief might rob them; a woman in a crowded taxi might report ‘inappropriate touching’. Any of these can destroy the certainty of their lives, or make them over-react. And often, the terrible things happen not from bad intentions, but ordinary human failures. Crimes of the heart, or omission.

That gives Farhadi’s films their greatest asset: a sense of compassion. For an Iranian director to win over the 6000 members of the American Academy not once but twice, there has to be a direct emotional path. In his last three films, Farhadi has created that sense of common ground and shared human experience. With the world as it is now, from where he is to where we are, that’s not just remarkable, but miraculous.