The Salesman, a strong but dark film made by the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, starts in a mood of panic as residents of an apartment block in Tehran are being urgently evacuated after cracks begin appearing in the walls and windows. The entire building is at risk of falling down, its foundations undermined by construction work next door. This sense of impending doom hangs over the entire film – and, one thinks, serves as a metaphor for the shaky social foundations of contemporary Iran.
Two of the evacuees - Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) find another apartment to live in, but it turns out to have a history – the previous tenant was a “woman with many male friends” – a euphemism that is lost on nobody in contemporary Iran, which lives with constant double standards belying the state-sponsored religious puritanism. One night Rana leaves the door open for her husband who is coming home, but one of the previous tenant’s clients happens to arrive first, and attacks her in the shower.
Rana is taken to the ER, and at this point the film diverges from what an American audience might reasonably expect would happen in this country. The police are not called, no evidence is gathered in the apartment, no investigation is started to find the perpetrator. Rana herself does not want to have to “tell everybody what happened”. This is a society where it is the woman’s fault and shame to have been attacked. Even the neighbors agree it is best not to go to the authorities.
Emad, a teacher and part time actor who is starring in a production of Death of a Salesman opposite Rana who is the female lead, now emerges as a real life avatar of Willy Lomax, the well-intentioned husband who cannot live up to his role as head of the family. Emad’s wife’s attacker left his car keys and phone behind, and Emad finally tracks him down. They have their final confrontation in the old apartment building, now empty, still with cracks in the wall, ominous and forlorn. Rana wants to forgive the man, but Emad is stuck in the mood for revenge but is unsure how to proceed, torn between his obvious love for his wife and the expectations of a very male-dominated social order.
The director, Farhadi, whose previous films include “A Separation” and “The Past”, was unfortunately not able to come to Los Angeles for the Q&A after the film because of the travel ban issued by the Administration that included Iran on its list. But it seems clear that his intentions with the film went beyond making a suspense movie. While staying just out of the reaches of the government censors, Farhadi has made a film that casts a harsh light on the claustrophobia of a modern society forced to live under anti-modern mores. And the character of Emad, like that of Willy Lomax, is ultimately a tragic figure, who tries to do the right thing but is confronted by something he cannot come to terms with. Something must give.