Even if an exception were made to Trump’s travel ban, it’s safe to say that writer/director Asghar Farhadi will not be attending this year’s Oscars. Iran’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film “The Salesman” has indeed been nominated along with the likes of Germany’s “Toni Erdmann”, perhaps fortuitous timing to bolster the backlash, but how bittersweet it would be to watch a surrogate accepting the statue.
The movie involves Tehran couple Rana and Emad (Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini, respectively) who are forced to move when their apartment building nearly collapses. Currently co-starring in a production of “Death of a Salesman”—off, off-Broadway, you might say—Rana and Emad rent a space in a tenement from cast mate Babak (Babak Karimi).
The flat is still warm from its previous inhabitant, a woman they know nothing about who’s left most of her belongings behind. One evening when Rana is alone, she inadvertently buzzes a stranger into her home thinking it is her husband, and is attacked while in the shower (not depicted), left with a bleeding head wound.
Emad pursues her assailant, playing detective against Rana’s wishes, as he tries to figure out who the previous tenant was and why someone might want to harm her. Between the fragments of information that Emad gets off the answering machine and the money left in the nightstand, she wasn’t exactly a model citizen. What happened during the attack? And who was the attacker?
He gets the tags to the pickup truck the man left while fleeing the scene; he tracks it to a restaurant where the employees share the vehicle (and apparently never wondered why it was missing for days), and he suddenly finds himself with a big decision to make.
If you’ve seen anything of director Farhadi, you know that he’s tasteful, almost to a fault; what we might jump to assume of her attack is never mentioned. “The Salesman” is more of a thriller than its predecessors, “The Past” and the Oscar-winning “A Separation”, but what it has in common with those films is that the core relationship hinges on divorce. Farhadi’s temperance becomes a bit frustrating, though; keeping things cryptic draws more attention to the couple’s shifting dynamic, but once it begins to go the way of a whodunnit it is far too sparing. An ultimatum is made, one that promises to leave those myriad questions unexplained.
But then it aims to impress upon its audience that those answers might no longer be important when the very relationship you’re trying to protect is eroding because of them. By that token, “The Salesman” illustrates how selfish the idea of revenge can become when the victim’s well being becomes secondary. Farhadi is a finesse filmmaker, and this is his niche, telling stories of distressed relationships with sociopolitical implications.
Select Theaters, Opens in Washington, DC on February 3rd at Landmark Bethesda Row
–M. Parsons 2017