The Salesman (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
17Jul/170

The Salesman (2016)

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Late night destruction throws Emad and Rana from their home.  Emad grows distracted from Rana as he has to help find a new place to live, continue his job teaching, and star in a production of The Death of a Salesman.  After Rana is attacked, Emad's scattered focus becomes more violently intense, and creates a rift between him and his wife.  Asghar Farhadi wrote the screenplay for and directs The Salesman, and stars Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti.

The Salesman embarks on a series of firsts for Iranian master writer/director Asghar Farhadi.  It's the first of his movies I've seen where the complex sprawl of characters with their own ethical spaces pared down to primarily focus on one.  That one, Emad (Shahab Hosseini), works hard as a teacher and lead performer in a production of Death of a Salesman.  This leads to another first where the pressures of life on Emad, and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), have a tidy in-universe parallel between Farhadi's look at Emad's anxiety and Emad's role as the titular salesman.

A bit too tidy for my taste.  Farhadi's earlier movies have a unique propulsion as we get fly on the wall glimpses into the lives of each player on his board and watch as their private impulses staggered out into unavoidable conflict.  Grounding The Salesman so thoroughly into Emad's internal ethical conflict does make things a bit "easier" to follow compared to Farhadi's other work.  It also means that the universal conflicts of faith, culture, and class winnowed to a parallel with one of the most overused fictional works of all time.

The crisis at home plays out onstage in parallels that are a bit too neat for Emad and unresolved for Rana.

While I'm not keen on what comes after, The Salesman opens on a spectacular note of tension that makes the lives of Emad and Rana pawns in the greater philosophical game Farhadi usually plays.  Farhadi's camera darts between different rooms, watching as people of all ages and sexes have their lives violently disrupted by an unseen attacker shaking the foundation of their building.  The frantic camera and desperate performances create an air of unease that culminates in the surprising reveal that the attacker is a steam shovel getting a night-time start on construction.  No matter how peacefully you may live your life, progress will find some way to tear it down.

For sure a great opening, and one that bears little weight on the rest of The Salesman outside of plot purposes.  Because of the march of construction Emad and Rana have to hurriedly move into a new apartment where a case of mistaken identity leads a stranger to attack Rana.  It's usually about this point in a Farhadi movie where the conflicting internal lives of the main characters would begin to crash into one another.  I love the idea that Emad, because of his sex, is able to have the kind of public emotional struggle than Rana has to keep internal.

This examination happens, sort of, with too many digressions back into the production of Death of a Salesman Emad and Rana star in.  The contrast between Emad and his take on Willy Loman is that Willy feels suffocated by a life he feels inadequate for while Emad has the freedom to forge his own kind of justice not afforded his on-stage avatar.  Rana's involvement in The Salesman feels like an afterthought once Emad starts his quest for vigilante justice.

Glimpses into Rana's emotional state are perfectly realized in backstage decay of a once-solid foundation.

So The Salesman ends up being a peculiar kind of partial-success.  Most directors would kill for the wealth of excellent moments Farhadi creates.  The threatening steam shovel in the opening is one example, and another is a backstage moment of peace for Rana when the unhealthy water-stained concrete creates a perfect window in to Rana's steadily declining faith in the stability of her life.  But the final confrontations, where Emad deals with who he thinks is the one who attacked Rana, feel divorced from the growing emotional conflict between Emad and Rana.  Even with an ultimatum Rana issues to Emad if he continues with his revenge, there's enough ambiguity in the attacker's fate to leave the conflict between Emad and Rana unresolved while Emad gets to take his life into his hands to an extent Willy Loman never could.

Unresolved emotional conflicts are part of Farhadi's filmography but rarely the sole destination.  By ending on such an ambiguous note, the disconnected opening and flashes to the stage production accomplish little beyond some texture and plot developments.  It's still excellently made texture, as Farhadi is in his own league when it comes to images of disrupting seemingly comfortable lives, but not one that enriches the overall experience.

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   The Salesman (2016)

Screenplay written and directed by Asghar Farhadi.
Starring Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti.

Posted by Andrew

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