Roger Ebert said that “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” and with the new administration in charge of the United States government being more than openly hostile towards the Iranian regime, the world is dire need of a bit of empathy. Enter the latest film from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, The Salesman, which is not an overtly political film. Instead The Salesman is a human drama about the lasting effect of violence, and goes a long way to prove that despite our numerous political and cultural difference that there’s very little that separates the people within the borders of these separate nations. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, The Salesman is a riveting drama that consistently builds the tension between its characters and the life-changing experience that shakes their lives.
When nearby construction causes massive damage to their apartment building, Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a teacher who is also in the process of staging a play of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are forced to seek out a new apartment. The previous tenant of their new apartment hasn’t fully moved out, leaving a variety of her possessions behind. At first this is a minor nuisance to the Emad and Rana as they go about their lives and continue their work on the play as Emad teaches during the day. One fateful night as Rana is home along, she buzzes someone up on the intercom thinking it’s Emad as she’s about to enter the shower. It is not her husband. Emad returns home to find a bloody scene, his wife brutally beaten (and though it’s never explicitly stated it is heavily implied that she’s been the victim of sexual assault). The aftermath of the event robs Rana of her joyous radiance as well as her appetite, as she slips further and further into a depression. Meanwhile, the gossip of the neighbors is haunting Emad. He feels helpless and seek answers about the woman who lived in the apartment before them, as well as her unsavory reputation. Emad’s quest for answers leads him into some dark corners from which he may never escape.
The leading duo of Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti give powerful performances as the married couple whose relationship becomes fractured. Alidoosti brings a sense of innocence lost to Rana following the story’s horrific act. It’s tragic to watch her warmth extinguished as her character becomes more and more withdrawn. Hosseini gives an equally affecting performance of a husband who feels his honor has been threatened by the crimes committed against his wife. You can see the pain of Emad’s face as he feels emasculated by his inability to protect his wife and tormented by the linger questions of the assailant’s identity. These feeling are amplified by the constant gossip of those around him. It slowly culminates in growing distance by these lovers that were once so close.
Asghar Farhadi does magnificent work with The Salesman, allowing the film to give us a feel for the relationship between Rana and Emad before pulling the rug out from underneath his characters. Farhadi’s camera captures the eroding relationship with a dynamic sensibility. The visual style is neither showy nor restrained, often allowing lengthy shots to capture the close quarters of their apartment while highlighting the growing rift dividing the married couple. There’s a strong moralistic streak that Farhadi brings to The Salesman that never even approaches becoming preachy or overwrought. The moralism of The Salesman goes deep into the notions of revenge and Farhadi really brings forth the futility of vengeance, seeing it as a means where satisfaction comes at the cost of losing everything you hold dear. Time and time again, the film is powerful, heartbreaking, and riveting.
Having already won an Oscar for A Separation, Asghar Farhadi has placed himself once again in line for a golden statuette; the stiffest competition likely coming from the critical darling Toni Erdmann. The Salesman is a powerful drama that has empathy seeping through every frame. Political and cultural differences will take center stage in diplomatic relations over the next four years and is likely to get more wrought before it gets better, but art exists to transcend these notions and Asghar Farhadi is the kind of artist needed in these times to help blur the lines between borders. The Salesman is a drama about people and could just as easily be set in the Western world. We our political leaders fail to help bridge the divide, art steps in and does what others lacking political will can’t do. Cinema is a machine that generates empathy, and there’s no greater example of its potential do so than The Salesman.
A powerful drama about the lasting effects of violence and the futility of vengeance, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman is riveting cinema that transcends borders with its heartbreaking tale that is overflowing with empathy.