2011 was kind of a crappy year for movies. I mean there were certainly some good and even very good movies that came out that year but there was almost nothing that really inspired a really strong reaction from me and by year’s end nothing had come out that really seemed worthy of being called “best of the year” and that was kind of depressing me. Then, almost like a miraculous deus ex machina, I found myself going to see one last movie before locking in my top ten list: an Iranian film that had received a lot of critical buzz called A Separation. Needless to say that became my favorite movie of the year, and while it would be a big exaggeration to say it restored my faith in cinema it certainly made me feel a lot better about the year. The film, which took a deep dive into a moral quagmire surrounding a pair of families, did not revel in Metatextual cleverness like the most famous Iranian films and instead defined itself by its humanity and insight and managed to be this amazingly accessible but incredibly deep film that was engrossing to watch. Clearly a new master had emerged and yet I somehow found myself missing his follow up film, the French language The Past, in theaters. I don’t remember all the details, I think it just came out late in the year during the Oscar logjam and reviews weren’t as strong as they were for his previous movie. When I finally caught up with it and found it was really good too that seemed like a very bad choice. I was not going to repeat the same mistake with his new film The Salesman.
The Salesman concerns a literature teacher/semi-professional actor living in Tehran named Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) who are currently staging a Persian production of Arthur Miller’s landmark play “Death of a Salesman.” They’ve also recently moved into a new apartment in a building owned by someone in their theater troupe. It’s not the nicest apartment but they don’t plan to be there long and they think they can make do. The biggest problem is that the previous tenant has apparently been evicted and she hasn’t yet returned to pick up some of her belongings. Eventually the landlord simply removes the items and leaves them there for her to pick up, but everyone starts to wonder just what it was about this woman that has caused so much notoriety. Then one day something awful happens. While Rana is going about her daily routine a man comes into their apartment and attacks her. It’s left vague what the full details of this attack are but it’s clearly a major violation and it leaves Rana with a big gash on her head. Emad is consumed with rage and Rana is in a state where she doesn’t know what to think. She doesn’t want to go to the police (too much trouble and she worries they will be unsympathetic) and Emad has no real idea how to support her.
I’d like to say that the traditional animosity between the United States and Iran wasn’t in the back of one’s mind when watching Asghar Farhadi films, but one can’t help but view them as an antidote to the one-dimensional view that Hollywood usually provides of Iranians and Muslim countries in general. Of course most Iranian movies will have non-stereotypical characters in them so why do Farhadi’s films work so particularly well in this regard? Part of it is that the characters he chooses to depict tend to be young to middle aged intellectual and essentially secular urbanites, which is more or less the demographic that will most closely match up with Western art house audiences. Really though, I think it mostly has to do with just how much detail and humanity Farhadi injects into his characters and the situations they find themselves in. They’re pretty much the most relatable movies set inside of repressive theocratic nations that you’re ever going to see. I do think Farhadi knows at this point that he has an international audience and is trying to reach them and the fact that his latest film involves people who are performing one of the most famous works of American literature is probably not a coincidence.
The main theme in this movie is ultimately that of revenge; whether it’s an appropriate response and who has the right to seek it. On some level this was also the theme of A Separation but that film was largely on the side of the avengee rather than the avenger and it looked at it in a less traditional way. I’m probably not spoiling anything by saying that the movie ultimately comes down on the side of revenge being empty and unsatisfying in the long run, which is not a terribly original message at this point. I’m also not entirely clear on how “The Death of a Salesman” fits in with all of this. Granted it might have been a little on the nose for the theater troupe to have been putting on a production of “Hamlet” or “Elektra” while all this angst was going on, but Arthur Miller’s play has almost nothing to do with revenge and is about a guy who would probably be too meek to seek out revenge for much of anything. Perhaps the theme that Farhadi is trying to highlight is less the revenge plot and more the challenges of trying to build an ideal middle class life and how easily that can go wrong down the line. Either way there seems to be a bit of a disconnect, but Farhadi’s grasp of human nature remains firm and he once again creates a situation that allows for deep empathy. Of the three Asghar Farhadi movies I’ve seen this is clearly the third best, but it’s still a Farhadi movie and it’s worth seeing.