We’ve sung the praises of Persian director Asghar Farhadi before on these pages. A Separation was a truly fine film, as was (to a lesser degree, perhaps) The Past. The Boy doesn’t remember Farhadi’s last two films all that well, but he was game to see this new one on vaguely remembering that they were good. This film would go up against the bizarre Toni Errdman and a film that was in our all-around best for 2016, A Man Called Ove. Go up against and win, in fact—a situation The Boy would refer to as “bullshit”.
And he’s not wrong. The Salesman takes Farhadi’s penchant for low-key drama and dials it down into pusillanimity.
The premise is this, an actor and his wife move into a new flat where a sketchy former tenant had lived and, one evening, when the wife hears the front-doorbell, she buzzes her husband in and leaves the front door ajar. Only it’s not her husband, and when her husband does come home, he finds blood everywhere. The neighbors have had to take her to the hospital.
The movie is terribly vague about what happened here. Farhadi used a similar gag effectively in his previous two films (particularly A Separation) to force the audience to reevaluate the narrative he previously lead them to believe, and—at least I thought—bring out the repression of the Iranian regime, where a mistake or a convenience can bring a death sentence.
I understand Mr. Farhadi lectured Americans on their civil rights record, though. Which is interesting. No, wait, it’s that other thing: boringly predictable and hypocritical.
Here, the issue at play is that Rana, the wife (played ably by Taraneh Alidoosti, Absolute Rest) who may have been sexually assaulted would have to defend herself against an Islamic-minded court, which would ask why she left the door ajar and why she buzzed someone who wasn’t her husband into the apartment. As in A Separation, in a repressive theocracy, a mistake can become not just a sin, but a mortal sin with corporal consequences.
The problem is, Farhadi’s a little too coy here. When husband Emad (Shahab Hosseini, A Separation, and who plays with Alidoosti on the TV show “Shahrzad”) finds the culprit and seeks to exact revenge, the murkiness of what actually happened becomes all too murky, and the timeline constructed for the crime begins to fall apart (and not in a good dramatic way, but in a way that just seems sloppy). If I have gathered the story correctly—and this may be a spoiler—Rana was not sexually assaulted at all, she was simply startled by a guy who was not entirely a Good Guy. Not fully on the up-and-up, and maybe not above taking a little bit of advantage of an opportunity.
Worth a slap, sure. Maybe even a good slug. Probably not murder. And I’m not saying he is murdered, by the way, but our hero—we’ll say that’s Emad—goes through a journey similar to ours and still has murder in his heart, regardless of whether he goes through with it.
He doesn’t, actually. Nobody goes through with much of anything here. The dramatic action is paralyzed with people who have no moral clarity.
The irony, mostly lost on The Boy, is that Emad and Rana are playing in a production of Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, and Emad has literally no insight or empathy into the antagonist in his own life, whose character is not unlike Willy Loman. This parallel is conspicuously drawn by Farhadi, and I would regard it as a slap in the face of actors generally (whether it’s true or not that acting gives one no insight or empathy toward other humans), and kind of an interesting counterpoint to his winning the award.
The Boy just felt it just wasted his time. I would note, even if I cautiously recommended it to a few, that while some actors lack the courage to empathize enough with the characters they play to see their parallels in real life, some writer/directors lack the courage to make a genuine statement. (“Nobody knows” not being a genuine statement.) And there were a lot to be made here: About theocratic repression, about the need for revenge, about forgiveness, and on and on. None are actually made because Emad can’t even decide to be wrong. He can only wait for things to happen.
That’s not good in life, but it’s terrible in drama.