The Salesman (2016)

Asghar Farhadi continues to write and direct some of the most gripping dramas in all of cinema. His breakthrough film About Elly (2009) is a restrained, broiling drama that would go on to define his films. A Separation came out two years later, was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar and demonstrated that Farhadi had a captivating style of filmmaking. In 2013 he made The Past, a coproduction with France with a story of Iranian immigrants caught up in dark secrets being unearthed.

The Salesman is Farhadi’s latest film and is likely one of the most tense and shocking dramas cinema will see until he pens and directs his next motion picture. Emad Etesami (Shahab Hosseini) teaches at the local high school and he and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are co-starring in a stage production of Death of a Salesman.

An earthquake drives them to find a new apartment. The only problem is a locked room in the house is filled with the possessions of the previous tenant. Rana becomes sick of the situation and has the room broken into and emptied. Not long passes before Rana is assaulted by someone who is assumed to be a previous client of the former tenant: a lady of the night. Emad begins a search to discover who attacked his wife while Rana insists he give up the search and pretend like nothing happened.

Emad seeks this outside of the wishes of Rana and it is then purely an endeavor in which he can prove his own worth and attempt to maintain some misguided sense of control. Instead of attending to the needs of his wife, he becomes obsessed with his search in the hopes of gaining control of the situation.

In contrast, Rana is left in a haze where she wants to pretend everything is normal and ignore the unfortunate past of their new home. She physically has the previous tenant’s items moved out of the house and hopes to build a family in their home instead of trying to retaliate. But Rana’s approach is its own kind of control: a repression of the trauma she experiences in the hope that if she acts like something never was it will be as if it never was.

As Emad and Rana individually tries to control the situation and persuade the other to his/her side, conversations become more heated, rehearsals end disastrously and each begins to resent the other. Bit by bit, the boiling pot shoves the lid just a bit more off to the side until the whole things blows over.

Rana and Emad both hope to bring some closure to the lingering sense of trauma but neither solution can bring closure. Emad’s quest won’t be able to satisfy his third for vengeance and will only take him farther away from Rana. And as much as Rana tries, ignoring and repressing the trauma eats away at her weak facade.

Farhadi’s films are some of the most tense and dramatic films on the market, often centered around unseen violent acts. He doesn’t even give suggestions of violence: the violent scenes are missing. Instead, he focuses on the slow moments that build to the violent acts and the psychological weight left in the wake of these violent events.

This makes for films as thrilling and tense as a great horror or thriller film but without the sensational elements. With a thriller or suspense piece,  there’s a cathartic release of violence or a satisfying conclusion. Farhadi is uninterested in doing something so crowd-pleasing. Instead, he leaves the audience shaken by the emotional weight of a situation that has spiraled out of control.

Farhadi’s continual thematic narrative is one of people in situations that spiral out of their control. Instead of returning them to some modicum of normalcy or giving back control, his characters are left in a state of resignation. Trying to control, trying to enact justice, trying to repress the trauma only exacerbates the situation. All that is left is to accept and feel the hurt, to recognize that relinquishing control is the first step towards true healing.

© James Blake Ewing 2017