‘You’re my foundation and my support, Linda’ implores Arthur Miller’s insecure protagonist Willy Loman to his wife in Death of a Salesman, the 1949 play from which writer-director Asghar Farhardi’s latest film draws its name and inspiration. Like Miller’s play, both physical and emotional foundations are shaken in The Salesman, fracturing the lives of those involved and exposing them to a precarious reality where desperate choices have dire consequences. Continuing his subtle, tense direction and drawing out another sensitive performance from a leading, conflicted couple, Farhardi tips us into a despairing morality play. While tempering the immediate social critique of Iranian societal gender roles from A Separation, though they remain relevant, The Salesman is nonetheless a hard-hitting reflection on hubris and humiliation that crumbles relationships and community.
The Lomans’ humble, fragile Brooklyn lodgings are transported, both in theatre and in reality, to the shabby, built-up apartments of Tehran. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are playing the leading roles in their production of Miller’s play. The desperate plight of their characters soon becomes their own when their apartment building suffers a dangerous fissure and the building is condemned. Relocated by their troupe friend Babak (Babak Kirimi) to a smaller apartment, they remain optimistic despite its rough, barely vacated interior. ‘Might be enough room for two, but not for three’ a half-joking, half-wistful Emad tells Babak. However, when Rana is brutally assaulted one night by an unknown assailant, the hopeful couple are left reeling. Emad becomes doggedly determined to uncover the attacker while Rana withdraws into anxiety and despair. Their production of Miller’s tragedy, once a source of mutual affection and enjoyment, becomes like the stark scaffold employed for their set: a cold frame that starts to confine and define their existence.
As with Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother, which wove Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire into its provocative critique of gender, sexuality and identity, Farhardi doesn’t so much as adapt Miller’s play in a contemporary Iranian context as tease out the play’s deeper themes into its own distinct narrative. Initially, Farhadi’s invocation appears both obvious and tentative, becoming ever more incongruous as it struggles to tighten with the context and characters. The abrupt jump from the muted, empty theatre stage to the panic-stricken urgency of the evacuation in The Salesman is startling but also jarring and this discordancy continues into a few early listless scenes. But then, assuredly, the play’s resonance begin to emerge as Emad and Rana’s relationship slowly unravels of its own accord. Drawing on these significant themes of Miller’s play, the couple’s diminished social status, Emad’s paranoia turning into obsession and the power of shame are all facets that take on a life of their own in Farhardi’s film. Like A Separation, there are potent class forces at work here, but Farhardi leaves these in the peripheral so not to lose the focus on the moral crisis. Known for courting some controversy internally in Iran, perhaps the recent UN sanctions and his country’s capitulation over its nuclear programme was in mind when he thumbed Miller’s withering critique of the ‘American Dream’.
Hosseini and Alidoosti are deeply affecting as the crumbling couple we watch painstakingly fall apart. From their understated, appreciative glances at each other in the rehearsals beneath character make-up to the devastating arguments that occur between them, both actors are engaging and believable as their connection to each other erodes. Hosseini, the eponymous ‘salesman’, goes from a decency and self-sacrifice to brimming with egoistic masculinity and self-pity. This is clever transition is partly revealed through his all-male literature class, where the mutual respect and good-natured humour is later switched when he figuratively crushes a student through almost perverse humiliation. Hosseini convincingly portrays a man conflicted with his righteous but ultimately self-serving need for revenge and unable to express his vulnerability. Alidoosti also goes through the gamut, from quiet gentility, numbing pain and wounded defiance (‘Don’t you know what I’m going through?’ she tells him). It’s all in Alidoosti’s eyes, which shrink back from their initial glow and then burst with despair and disbelief as Rana becomes disorientated by her husband’s selfish actions and pyrrhic victory. This declivity is subtle, careful and powerfully performed.
Farhardi paces all of this expertly, knowing when to ratchet up the tension into almost unbearable proportions. The rougher, but occasionally graceful, handheld camerawork, almost Loachian in quality, is highly effective here, with Farhardi capable of switching the mood subtly and abruptly through the mise en scene. A scene of brief respite, a domestic arrangement with a friends’ son, comes to an abrupt end though the subtle trigger is the music in the background fading away. Rana opening and leaving the door at a fateful moment is both chilling for its suggestiveness as he sustains the shot of it yawning open. He also infuses a sense of ambiguity in the narrative, capable of developing a mystery that is not merely intriguing in its revelation but also its effect on the characters. As Emad pursues his wife’s attacker, questions are raised about his motives: why is he really doing this? Did it really occur as has been described? Is he losing sight of what’s important?
The film’s visceral final scenes leave you not only nerve-wracked and breathless but sitting in judgement of those on screen and their actions.Yet, like Miller’s play, The Salesman is also an inquiry into how we perceive ourselves and are perceived by others, especially in realising the moral consequences of pursuing a so-called noble cause. It is also an indication of how fragile our foundations can be and if they collapse, what remains.