** ½ (out of 4)
Like countless movies before it, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman makes use of a “story within a story” device: the main characters, a married couple named Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), star in an Iranian production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. What at first distinguishes the film from preceding users of said device, however, is that its larger story initially doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what Miller wrote. The plotline, after all, chiefly concerns the fact that Rana is raped by an unknown assailant in the shower, and the film devotes most of its running time to following Emad’s attempts to track the perpetrator down. Farhadi said he chose Death to be the movie’s story-within-a-story only after a careful, deliberate search, but for a while, you nevertheless wonder what meaningful connection he saw between Willy Loman’s economic woes and the intimate struggles of a modern-day Tehran couple.
Fortunately, however, the movie doesn’t leave you hanging on this. By the time the finale rolls around, you’re in fact made to realize that the missing link is a pair of themes that Farhadi has often tackled in the past: male pride and female subordination. Willy Loman, after all, is a character defined by his insistence on clinging to illusions of success and grandeur. In Death, he repeatedly falls prey to “glory days” flashbacks so vivid that they impose themselves over whatever interactions he’s having in the moment. Even on the page, statements of his like “They don’t need me in New York. I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England” clearly read as a man’s desperate attempts to convince himself he’s still important – if he ever even was. And it’s telling that such compensatory hubris turns out to be characteristic of both him and the play’s other male characters; the female characters, in contrast, remain confined to largely passive roles as either blissfully ignorant housewives (Linda) or objects of male desire (Miss Forsythe, Miss Frances).
What Farhadi successfully shows us is that the gender dynamics in Emad and Rana’s relationship largely mirror those omnipresent in Death. Emad’s reaction to Rana’s rape, we see, is guided less by true empathy for her anguish than a desire to ensure that his honor remains intact. His neighbors criticize him for his apparent lack of understanding of what Rana went through, he often expresses unwarranted frustration at Rana’s withdrawn behavior post-assault – and in the movie’s climax, he brazenly co-opts her trauma in the name of asserting his strength and dignity. Throughout it all, meanwhile, Rana remains a woman who clearly has something to say but never gets a chance to say it: in the several shots where she’s shown forlornly standing or sitting on the sidelines, we get a palpable sense of the mixture of stifled dismay and resignation with which she approaches her place in her marriage.
Miller’s play, then, turns out to be Farhadi’s counterintuitive way of reinforcing ideas regarding gender relations, and the fact that he’s found such links between Death and Emad and Rana’s story is a testament to his skill. Yet after deciphering the literary allusions, you’ll probably still find the overall movie unsatisfying because Farhadi has already explored the aforementioned ideas with greater insight in earlier works. To take just one example, his approach to Rana feels detached when compared to the piercing presentation he gave of Sepideh’s inner turmoil in 2009’s About Elly, a film that was also far more resonant stylistically. And while The Salesman largely sticks to just discussing gender-related topics, Farhadi previously combined such analysis with vicious portrayals of class tension, religious hypocrisy, and family conflict in movies like 2006’s Fireworks Wednesday and 2011’s A Separation. Nothing you witness in Emad and Rana’s tale represents much of an improvement on what Farhadi has done in these older movies; if anything, when you consider that the finale of The Salesman recycles the rundown-building setting of both About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday, he’s actually gotten a little lazy.
Beyond this superficiality, however, the real issue with The Salesman is that it’s a bit too much like a play. Farhadi has made clear that he saw this movie as a way to mix theater into his cinematic pursuits; in that spirit, several parts, particularly the closing act, clearly seek to capture an intensity reminiscent of classic film adaptations like 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire and 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Yet such efforts are undercut by the fact that the movie usually spends its energy being, well, a movie – the camera whisks us through classrooms and houses and streets with shots that don’t even pay lip service to the traditionally well-defined spatial limitations of a stage production. What you end up getting here in consequence is a cross between hemmed-in drama and seeming neorealism that more often than not feels overly cumbersome. And when it’s done, one thing above all has become painfully clear: Farhadi would have been better off if he had kept his two preferred art forms apart.
The Salesman (2016)
Country: Iran. Dialogue in Persian.
Starring: Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi, Farid Sajjadi Hosseini
Running Time: 125 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for mature thematic elements and a brief bloody image.”
Produced by: Asghar Farhadi, Alexandre Mallet-Guy
Written and Directed by: Asghar Farhadi