Think of the worst thing you’ve seen a cowboy builder do. Is it bodging a driveway? Building the wrong wall? How about undermining the foundations of an entire apartment block, causing a mass exodus of tenants and starting a chain of events that drives sharp rifts between families and friends? So begins The Salesman, Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi’s latest film. Here, the Iranian filmmaker brings a tightly spun drama to the table, exploring the potentially devastating effects of trauma, shame, and revenge in contemporary Tehran.
The Salesman follows Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a literature teacher, and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidooti) as they are forced from their home by construction damage. Involved in an am-dram production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the couple’s friend and fellow actor Babak (Babak Karimi) offers a new flat for them to rent temporarily. Rana is soon assaulted in this new home, and we watch as the trauma and its consequences spiral out, affecting all the characters to some degree – whether directly or not. Farhadi has a keen eye for how fear and frustration overspill into different aspects of our lives, provoking outbursts incomprehensible to those ignorant of the full story – we see Emad’s pupils’ shocked as their once calm and composed teacher turns tense and aggressive.
Art-house films tend to have a predilection for a certain kind of distraught face; the sort where the character looks irretrievably buffeted by the unfairness and cruelty of fate. As Emad, Hosseini uses it to deliver a tour de force performance. His frown lines deepen and his eyes look lost as he struggles to resolve the rifts and wounds plaguing his personal life. Yet Hosseini is convincing, keeping you fearful for his well-being, as he oscillates between barely coping and spoiling for a fight. Taraneh Alidooti is similarly effective as Rana, affecting a vulnerability after the attack; she’s a character trapped by her own mind, unable to break out from her new-found world of fear. Watching Rana build her resolve, push her boundaries, and then falter is similarly heart rending, like watching a friend try and fail to break free from their problems. This is only strengthened when juxtaposed with the challenges presented to supporting characters: a single mother directing the play, elderly women fearful of strange men, and old Babak showing that even when a landlord is a friend they can still be arseholes.
Whilst we see the traumatic effects upon a wide range of characters involved with the assault, The Salesman is equally keen on exposing our fear of public humiliation. This is done most notably through Rana, but mirrored throughout the film as various characters find themselves helpless, unwilling or unable to seek help or protection from the more powerful for fear of ridicule and the loss of love and respect. It is the range of manifestations of this powerlessness, and the variety of responses to them, that drives The Salesman, creating a riveting tension as you fearfully watch the fateful decisions being made.