I try and avoid talking about politics here, because sometimes I feel politics just doesn’t have much of a place in cinema, which is often supposed to be escapism, and not somewhere for political discourse, but I just say need to say something – the recent travel ban on the USA that is keeping the cast and crew of The Salesman (Forušande) from attending the Academy Awards this week is a complete and utter travesty, not only because it is an utterly remarkable film, but to shut out seven countries and create a sense of exclusion from the rest of the world will not only hurt the countries and their societies, but also their art.
However, if any good can come out of this cruel and unnecessary treatment of people of an entire religion, or those from countries who certain individuals (who somehow, through dishonesty and cheating managed to get into power) feel are capable of committing acts of terrorism (an absurd idea), at least the next four years will be filled with radical and passionate displays of defiance in terms of art, because to treat an entire group of people that constitutes one of the biggest portions of the world’s population is despicable, deplorable and approaching a crime against humanity, and it is up to everyone who has any decency in this world to fight for what is right.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the film itself. The Salesman is one of the most extraordinary films I’ve seen in a while, and it is no surprise that once again, an Iranian film completely blew my mind in terms of its intricate storytelling and incredible filmmaking. I am someone who believes that Iran has one of the most underrated and consistently excellent film industries in the world, and they are responsible for some of the most audacious and undeniably unique films in history (just look at the films of the late Abbas Kiarostami, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time who helped revolutionize cinema in an utterly extraordinary and unique way) – and while Iranian cinema is not obscure, it is somewhat underappreciated. Another figure, other than Kiarostami, who brings Iranian films to a much wider global audience is Asghar Farhadi (who was not surprisingly a close friend and protégé of Kiarostami), who has made films that are just as intriguing and important to Iran’s cinema industry as Kiarostami’s masterpieces.
In his latest film, The Salesman, Farhadi once again constructs a morality play around ethical and social issues, that feature characters grappling with incredibly difficult moral dilemmas and attempting to overcome them and do what they feel is right. Much like his other films, Farhadi creates characters that are real and humane, who suffer from the same malady that we all do – we are all human beings, with complex emotions and questionable moral judgment some of the time. None of us are perfect, and it can’t be argued than anyone who has not made a questionable decision in terms of judgment is either currently being born or being canonized in the Vatican. Much like in the style of Renaissance theatre, Farhadi constructs intricate morality plays, that try and teach a lesson of sorts, but what differs the films of Farhadi from these morality plays is that his films are extraordinarily heartbreaking and lack the sense of preaching that plague similar pieces of art. The Salesman may not be Farhadi’s masterpiece (that will forever be reserved for A Separation), but it is pretty damn brilliant in its own right.
The Salesman centres on a married couple – Emad Etesami (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who live in Iran pretty happily. Childless, they are forced to leave their home after the building begins to collapse, and in desperation, a friend of theirs (Babak Karimi) offers them an apartment that a friend of his recently vacated. Emad, a schoolteacher, and Rana, a housewife, also are amateur actors and are currently in a local production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, playing the lead roles of Willy Loman and his wife Linda. The complexities of the play begin to reflect on the marriage of the couple, as they discover that their apartment used to be home to a prostitute who would host many of her clients in the same apartment that Emad and Rana were hoping to raise a child in. When a mysterious customer of the prostitute shows up one night and assaults Rana, Emad takes it upon himself to find the culprit and bring justice.
I cannot begin to explain how extraordinary the two lead performances in this film were. Shahab Hosseini in particular was just unbelievably brilliant here, and playing Emad, a loving husband and honest man who only wants to see justice in the world, he brings so much to the role. Emad is a complex, layered character who isn’t at all a bad person, but rather (like many of us) in his search for what he believes to be right, he makes questionable decisions that possibly end up killing a man at the end of this film (it is left ambiguous, but it does linger on the mind for a while).
On the other hand, Taraneh Alidoosti gives one of the most extraordinary performances of the year by an actress, alternating between frail and sensitive, to fiery and passionate. Just as complex as Emad, Rana is an anomaly of a character, and her struggles are incredibly real and hit a raw nerve for anyone who has found themselves in the position of having been in a traumatic incident. Together, Hosseini and Alidoosti compose a portrait of a couple that goes through a difficult time that could question their marriage, and the ending is so ambiguous – will the events of the past few weeks make them stronger, or will it tear them apart and cause their marriage to collapse like their home at the beginning of the film? This is one of Farhadi’s classic examples of mise en abîme, and foreshadowing.
The Salesman is such a tremendous film. It is beautifully directed, and the performances are beyond outstanding. The third act is one of the most chilling and tense experiences I’ve ever had, and it left me almost at a loss for words. If the film does seem a bit meandering and slow (it does take a bit too long to get to the point where they discover the truth of their apartment’s previous tenant), it is all worth it for the bone-chillingly terrifying final act, where answers come out, both in terms of the facts and in the way the characters react to their moral and ethical virtues and dilemmas. Overall, The Salesman is another reason why global cinema is important, as it allows the opportunity for unique filmmakers to create great films. The Salesman is extraordinary and everyone should make the effort to watch it, because it is incredible on many levels. It is going to become a masterpiece of world cinema.