Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-nominated The Salesman opens with the focusing of theatrical lights and the sounds of a chorus tuning up, both of which seem particularly appropriate for the latest feature from a filmmaker whose work is rooted in the early theatrical form of the morality play. As with the Tudor and Medieval entertainments that coined that phrase, his films are concerned with Everymen (and women), who frequently find their sense of what is good and just challenged and tested. Unlike those broadly representative works, Farhadi’s films focus on small situations and interactions, often pivoting on a single, fleeting event easily misinterpreted, yet (in its own way) earth-shattering. We eventually discover those lights are being focused for a production of Death of a Salesman, and the quotation makes sense; that, too, was a morality play, and an equally complicated one.
The stars of that production are a husband and wife, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Sanam (Mina Sadati). In the opening scene, their apartment block is literally collapsing, due to construction next door; they find themselves in desperate need of a new home, with no funds to do so. One of the many striking differences between Farhadi’s films and even independent American counterparts is his continued awareness of paycheck-to-paycheck living – they cannot get their deposit back because their landlord is broke, so they’re forced to sell their car to get enough money for a deposit. But one of their fellow actors has a place they can rent, if they can overlook a few flaws, including a locked bedroom door full of the previous tenant’s things.
In the tension over who that woman was and why she won’t come get those things, Farhadi seems to be setting up one of his customary domestic-squabble situations. But the stakes are higher this time. One night, after rehearsal, Sanam is home alone and the intercom rings. She buzzes the visitor in, assuming it’s her husband. Farhadi lingers on the door, slowly swinging open wider, for just a moment too long – and then cuts away to Emad, at the store. It’s a powerful moment, and a brutal cut. He doesn’t show us what happens next; indeed, being an Iranian filmmaker, he presumably can’t show us. But he doesn’t really have to.
And yet he treats that event with the same matter-of-fact (almost off-hand) approach as everything else; these people don’t have the luxury of not just dealing with big and small events alike, moving forward. Yet Sanam is understandably traumatized; she asks her husband to accompany her to the bathroom (where it happened), and explains that she cannot sleep, because “as soon as I close my eyes, I’ll see it again.” Farhadi’s writing and direction are so sensitive that he puts us in tune with the complex emotions this harrowing event invokes, and we find ourselves reading between the lines of their interactions – his guilt (she was opening the door for him), her guilt (she should’ve used the intercom, she tells herself), his frustration and (in all senses) impotence, her sense that he’s not doing enough, his guilt that she’s right. They seldom raise their voices, but those quiet fights are as stressful as the tensest horror movie.
And, as in his stunning A Separation, Farhadi captures how we revisit and reexamine every tiny decision and detail of a terrible event, turning it back over once more, looking for answers and fixes that simply are not there. The crushing weight of these events can drift off, but only fleetingly; watch how the director dramatizes the momentary psychological diversion of a nice meal with a guest, the kind of modestly human moment he can craft out of nothing, and then watch how quickly the tiniest reminder can deflate the entire enterprise.
Eventually, Emad finds himself face to face with the man responsible (the escalation of what is, initially, a very different encounter is a remarkable piece of drama), and must decide the appropriate action – even when his impulse goes against what his wife, the wronged party, wants. A few years back, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners put its protagonist into a similar situation, and the differences in execution are striking; Prisoners buried itself in histrionics and cheap thrills, while The Salesman urgently engages with the choices of its characters, and their consequences. That is Asghar Fahardi’s gift, and it should not be undervalued.
“The Salesman” is out today in limited release.