Ever since his film “A Separation” shook the globe earlier this decade, I’ve believed that we will study the work of Asghar Farhadi like a great dramatist. His multi-layered, internalized character studies recall Shakespeare, Ibsen or Williams more than any cinema director. “The Salesman,” Farhadi’s latest feature, crystallizes this connection by foregrounding the film’s moral dilemmas against a stage production of Arthur Miller’s renowned “Death of a Salesman.”
The film does not draw upon this weighty source to provide gravity for the narrative, nor does it require the audience to possess an 11th-grade English class working knowledge of the play to fully appreciate the film. (Almodóvar’s “All About My Mother,” poignant as it is, closes off meaning to a segment of the audience unfamiliar with “A Streetcar Named Desire.”) In fact, “The Salesman” feels like Farhadi’s least proscenium-ready work to date, particularly in its final act. More than anything, the film shares a kinship with the cinema of Michael Haneke where seemingly random violence strikes and its aftershocks tremble throughout all aspects of the psyche and milieu.
After their apartment building collapses in the film’s opening scene, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) take temporary shelter in a space they later find out belonged to a lady of the night. This revelation comes too late after Rana buzzes in a client of the former tenant … and winds up brutally wounded once he leaves. Farhadi does not depict what transpires in the domicile, instead opting to show us something much more frightening: the ramifications. Both deal with shame, Rana for receiving the injury and Emad for being unable to prevent it. Unlike Farhadi’s previous films, which envelop communities and involve multiple characters, “The Salesman” dwells primarily in their private humiliation like a chamber drama.
All the while, Farhadi sneaks up on us with the power of his observations on how anger clouds out our compassion for other people. His films have long existed at the intersection of miscommunication and misdeeds, but “The Salesman” lingers longer at this juncture. In a contained, single-location finale, he methodically unfurls a claustrophobic exploration of how disgrace can drive our darkest, cruelest impulses. Farhadi may narrow his scope, though not for a second does he sacrifice the depth of his understanding about human nature.
The final shot of the film features makeup artists drawing lines of old age on Rana and Emad before going out on stage in “Death of a Salesman.” Damned if that doesn’t feel fittingly redundant by the end of “The Salesman” after all they’ve experienced. B+ /