'The Salesman' Offers A Brilliant Portrayal Of Marriage And Vengeance

Feb 1, 2017
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The Iranian film "The Salesman" is one of the five nominees for this year's foreign language Academy Award, which will be presented at the end of February. But the writer and director, Asghar Farhadi, has said he won't attend the ceremony because of President Trump's travel ban. Farhadi won an Oscar for his 2011 film "A Separation." Film critic David Edelstein has this review of "The Salesman."

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: A woman is brutally assaulted in the early part of Asghar Farhadi's gripping Iranian drama "The Salesman." The woman, Rana, is washing up in the bathroom of her new apartment in an unfamiliar part of Tehran, just home from acting in Arthur Miller's "Death Of A Salesman," where she plays Willy Loman's wife. She hears the buzzer from downstairs and thinks it's her husband, Emad, who plays Willy. So she unlocks the door and returns to what she was doing.

Later when Emad does get home, he sees blood everywhere. He finds Rana in the hospital where the wounds on her face are being stitched. She won't talk about what happened, not then, not a few days later. The nature of the assault, a description of the assailant, the motive, it's a blank to be filled by Emad's churning suspicions and fears. That blank is central to many of Farhadi's films. His Oscar-winning "A Separation" turns on a woman's unseen fall in a staircase.

Not knowing what happened makes us consider the destructive social forces that helped put that woman on that staircase at that time. In my favorite movie of Farhadi's, "About Elly," a young female teacher disappears while visiting colleagues at their beach house. As they learn more about their absent guest, the focus subtly shifts to the trauma of her life and by implication, the lives of many working single women in modern Iran.

As much as whodunits, Farhadi makes what-done-its and why-done-its. The director has a detached, rather clinical style, as if he's photographing specimens in a terrarium, the terrarium being a city in which artists have to watch their backs because of hovering sensors. His own social criticisms are oblique. The movie begins with the imminent collapse of Rana and Emad's lovely apartment, a literal collapse, the result of apparently careless citywide construction.

Their new shabbier apartment has items belonging to the evicted previous tenant and her small child, whose bike is still there. That tenant apparently had clients, meaning johns, and Emad suspects the person who assaulted his wife might have been one or else was sent by the woman to harass the new tenants. When he finds a set of keys dropped by the attacker and the van parked nearby they belong to, Emad wants vengeance. But Rana is impossible to pin down.

Her devastation lingers. She even insists on showering in her old, collapsing apartment. But she doesn't want to go to the police. The inaction in the middle section of "The Salesman" is excruciating. And there's a broader aspect to the film. Slowly, we begin to see the parallels between this event and "Death Of A Salesman," in which Willy's son learns that his dad is seeing a prostitute, which helps drive the old man to suicide. More, I cannot say, except that I didn't draw too many breaths during the last half hour.

I can't praise too highly the performances of Shahab Hosseini as the increasingly fevered Emad and longtime Farhadi collaborator Taraneh Alidoosti as Rana, whose wordless despair gives the movie's final section so much of its power. Farid Sajjadi Hosseini plays an older man who shows up late and all but owns the movie. "The Salesman" is nominated for this year's foreign language feature Academy Award, but it's unclear if Farhadi would be able to attend the ceremony given the presidential order banning citizens of certain countries from visiting the U.S. He has said, in any case, that he won't come.

The good news is that the controversy has stirred up even more support for this brilliant and deeply humanist film.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the Trump administration's relationship with the alt-right and the divisions he's created in the Christian right. Our guest will be investigative journalist Sarah Posner. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.