“Classical tragedy was the war between good and evil…But the battle in modern tragedy is between good and good.” Asghar Farhadi
The plentifully awarded Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi must be one of the great talents in modern film? He enjoyed vast global success with A Separation (2011) after previously being awarded in international festivals for About Elly (2009), Fireworks Wednesday (2006) and Beautiful City (2004).
With The Salesman (2016) – in one sense a mystery about the assault of a wife and her husband’s quest to seek revenge – his creative writing appears to have reached another height. It is also a tale of modern Iran, its cultured middle class and the day-to-day lies many of them cover within their seemingly good lives. Modern tragedy is between good and good.
The story is built around the lives of wife-and-husband Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and their co-participation in playing the major roles of Linda and Willy in a production of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s most famous play.
In their production, the tragedy of Willy Loman evolves amid censorship by authorities (e.g. a hooker appears nearly naked in the US version when she emerges from a bathroom, exposing Willy’s infidelity to his son Biff; in the production Rana and Emad star in, the character wears a tightly belted raincoat).
It is at the same time as an after-rehearsal meeting with censors that the modern tragedy of the couple’s life begins. The two have already been forced to leave their apartment when development of the block next door causes massive cracks in their building’s walls. It is a metaphor for the destruction of their city and what is about to happen to their lives. At one point in conversation Emad’s friend Babak (Babak Karimi) – who has provided them with their new home – says of the city: “They did rebuild it and look what it’s become.” (paraphrased).
With plenty to do at home, Rana refuses to stay for the censorship meeting and goes home to their new place, previously occupied by a woman who, in the euphemistic discussions of the neighbours, had many male visitors. Rana, believing the door buzzer going is Emad returning from the meeting, opens the front door and begins to shower. She is assaulted by an unseen stranger.
Emad, a school teacher, well liked by his students, is introduced as a caring man with a good sense of humour and an understanding of the travails of the modern Iranian woman. Early in the story he shares a taxi cab with several people including a woman who virtually accuses him of touching her during the ride. She asks to swap places with a student sitting in the front seat and when the student later tells Emad he felt sorry for him being wrongly challenged about doing something wrong, the teacher tells him that while it was unfair, you can be assured that at some time in her life it had really happened to the woman.
This is pre-assault on Rana but after the attack, he begins a quest for answers which becomes a quest for revenge. He suffers a breakdown of trust of those about him, including a small doubt about his own wife who refuses to go to the police to complain.
After the assault, Emad finds the attacker’s car keys and the vehicle and he lays a trap. However, Rana moves the car from their building’s car park into the street and it is eventually recovered by the assailant. Emad then traces the vehicle (using one of his student’s connections) and seeks to find the attacker and publicly humiliate him. All this while doubt is cast in the viewers’ mind: Was Rana raped or just seen naked before the man escaped?
During these troubled times, Rana loses her lines on stage and Emad shouts made-up dialogue at Babak, who he blames for not warning the couple about the inappropriate work of the previous tenant and the prospect that men could idly visit their premises. When he discovers Babak to be one of these men, he becomes incensed but takes it out on his friend in the play rather than in real life.
When Emad believes he has discovered the attacker he implores the young man, Majid (Mojtaba Pirzadeh) to come to his old apartment to help him move some paintings. However, Majid’s prospective father-in-law Naser (Farid Sajjadi Hosseini) comes instead, wheezing his way up the flights of stairs.
Events lead to Naser collapsing with a heart attack while with Majid, his fiancee and her mother; Majid being uncertain as to what has transpired between the two men; and Rana leaving Emad.
Naser’s wife exalts her husband when he first collapses, mirroring Linda standing above Willy’s corpse in the play, telling him how much he was loved. The real-life dying man and the stage corpse have each been tempted and found wanting.
The Salesman closes with Rana and Emad in make up, being made to look older for their roles.
The two are about to play parts in a famous tragedy but the make up only covers their real faces and the tragedy that has just befallen them.
This is one of the best films I have seen with the Film Club and my thanks to Alison for pointing out that Naser is the salesman of the title.