We all know the Best Foreign Film win at this year’s Oscars was a middle finger up to Trump’s Muslim Ban rather than a genuine award based on merit. Director Asghar Farhadi’s refusal to attend the ceremony was the real statement being applauded as The Salesman was crowned – we all knew it, and the audience of celebs all knew it as they gave their obligatory standing ovation. How many of them had seen the film, I wondered?
I reserved my ovation until after I had seen it, and an ovation it deserves – if a muted one. Asghar Farhadi is one of the very best writer/directors working in film: a troubled humanist, a keen and subtle political commentator, a generous and wise handler of actors. Yet The Salesman is a minor effort when measured against his high points – certainly not a patch on the great A Separation, and not even close to the lesser The Past (absolute must-sees if you haven’t already). Still, and this is a testament to his brilliance, it deserves to be seen.
The film follows a young married couple who, in a familiar Farhadi motif, seem content on the surface, but deep down there lies another story. Cracks are forming, quite literally in the film’s opening sequence where an entire apartment block’s foundation is shown to be collapsing and the camera homes in on a splintering window. The symbolism is heavy-handed here, some would say pretentious. But I would argue that it’s potent, visually showing us in a few frames what the words between this couple will manage to evade, namely that their marriage is built on an unstable foundation. The events of the film will serve to expose this fragile bond between them.
The pair are performing the lead roles in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at a local theatre (just as they’re performing in their own marriage). The choice of play is important because it’s another drama about a married couple whose relationship involves skirting around the truth.
Similarly to Miller’s classic, The Salesman has a lot more interest in the male role, with the female largely a passive observer of the man’s deceitful self-destructiveness. It’s a disappointing flaw in both, yet less forgivable in Farhadi’s film, because unlike Miller’s play the action pivots around a terrible event happening to the wife. Farhadi seems more concerned with the effect on the husband. For a humanist, that’s an unfortunate lapse.
Still, if you can accept the androcentrism, there is meat enough on The Salesman for it to be worth a nibble. As with his past films, Farhadi’s focus on the divisions within a relationship can be read as a commentary upon the divisions – religious, moral, political, and other – in modern Iranian society, which has fascinating implications. Never does he come down firmly on one side of the traditional/modernising divide, seeking instead to demonstrate Renoir’s famous adage that ‘everyone has their reasons’, which is why I repeatedly call him a humanist. The ‘villain’ in The Salesman, the wife’s attacker, is shown to be so pathetic and weak that you can’t help but sympathise with him, even as you shudder at his representing an old order of misogyny. Meanwhile, the avenging husband appears increasingly sinister despite the most honourable of intentions, defending his wife, which gives the film an intriguing spin on the revenge thriller.
So The Salesman is a tough moral puzzle, like all of the best Farhadi films, and what’s more it has a genuinely riveting final half an hour in which husband and attacker finally confront each other. The intensity of the probing handheld camerawork, nevertheless always restrained by the director’s cool touch, lets the tension builds in a genuinely unpredictable manner. What will win out, we wonder, hysteria or rationality?
This is a minor yet worthwhile work by a major director, then. Have you seen Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man or Spielberg’s A.I.? That’s the sort of level we’re talking about here – flashes of genius, but no masterwork.