The Salesman (Forushande)

Iran (2016) Dir. Asghar Farhadi

For the better part of this millennium, Asghar Farhadi has been the most prominent figure in Iranian cinema on the international stage, with two Oscars and numerous other awards to his credit. Subtly holding a mirror up to modern Iranian society The Salesman sees Farhadi in a rather restrained mood.

At the heart of this tale are married couple Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), both acting a stage version of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman when their apartment building collapses. A colleague Babak (Babak Karimi) offers them a smaller apartment to move into but is a little cagey about the previous female tenant, whose possessions are still in the flat.

One night Emad returns home to find Rana has been attacked by an intruder and taken to hospital. While Rana struggles to deal with the trauma of such a violation, an angry Emad wants to find the attacker, which creates a rift between the two, ironically mirrored in their onstage roles as a married couple whose relationship is also fated to end in tragedy.

In case anyone is concerned, you don’t need to be familiar with Miller’s play to follow this story, as the parallels are fleeting and almost incidental in the grand scheme of things. Even if Farhadi meant for this to be a major facet, it can be ignored or even removed from the plot completely, and nothing would be lost – call it a little bit of literary fan service if you will.

The reason for suggesting Farhadi appears restrained with this film is the lack of trenchant social commentary that has made his previous works so vital and relevant. The story is nonetheless potent and the drama is built around a moral theme rather than a social one but lacks that intensity and killer bite we’ve come to expect from Farhadi.

However, this is still a wholly captivating and slowly galvanising human drama with a cleverly constructed story that doesn’t give the game away too early, drip-feeding information and being equally cautious with the pay offs. It reads likes a crime thriller and in essence plays out as one with the vengeful husband wanting to crack some skulls while the wife’s torment is ignored.

Farhadi is smart enough to paint the details of the crime in shades of grey to get mileage out of the oppression Iranian women are trapped under in patriarchal governance, fulfilling the social commentary quota for this film. The reason Rana was attacked is not as straightforward as an intruder lashing out after being disturbed – Rana assumed that Emad had rung the door intercom and instinctively opened the door to let him in.

Emad returned a while later to find blood on the stairwell outside and in the shower which is where Rana was attacked. While never disclosed it would appear that the cuts and bruises to her face was the sole damage and nothing sexual related occurred. But it could have been because Emad learns from the other tenants who rushed to scene in his absence, that the previous occupant was a “promiscuous” young woman.

So, a case of mistaken identity perhaps? What if the other woman had made an enemy out of one of her clients and this was his revenge? If that is the case, why was the intruder so violent and not embarrassed by his error and simply leave? Muddying the waters further is the fact that Babak withheld the nature of the woman’s job from Emad and the fact they had been jousting over the phone via angry messages.

Emad is furious and wants to hunt the attacker down, finding a pickup truck nearby that was left behind on the night of the attack, which he takes to the apartments and waits for the owner to retrieve. When this happens, Emad has a lead and plots his revenge. Meanwhile Rana refuses to go to the police, unsettled at having to relate the details of the attack to strangers, whilst fearing her word will be discounted especially having practically invited the attacker in.

The judicial system on this side of the world is known for its often-maladroit handling of rape and assault cases against women but they at least give the victims the benefit of the doubt first. If a woman feels her worth is so little that a genuine violation against her won’t be taken seriously, even for appearance sake, by the authorities then serious questions need to be asked.

Along with the emotional suffering and enforced withdrawal Rana endures after the attack, this basic human rights issue isn’t thrust upon us with tactless indignation or melodramatic clumsiness; Farhadi knows what buttons to press and how to press them subtly, all the while ensuring the audience never loses sight of its sympathy for Rana and allow her to keep her dignity.

The final act is full of twists and has proven to be quite polarising, with opinion divided as to whether the ambiguity left the matter unresolved morally or if it was thought provoking enough in demonstrating how one simple mistake could spiral out of control and cause such devastation.

Shahab Hosseini won many awards  for his portrayal as Emad and his superb, taking him from amiable teacher and loving husband to a man consumed with bitter anger and paranoia in the name of vengeance, with the caveat being the reason he is doing it – for him or for his wife? For me, Taraneh Alidoosti was equally, if not more impressive as Rana, charged with carrying the emotional weight of a strong woman turned brittle victim at odds with her own sense of worth.

Unfolding at a slower pace than usual, The Salesman is well crafted and never dull, maintaining Farhadi’s graceful and empathetic direction in telling a difficult story with credible characters. Perhaps high expectations following the Oscar win incurred some of the lukewarm responses but this film still sits nicely in Farhadi’s catalogue.

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