Tension in Tehran

Director Asghar Farhadi's Academy Award winner for best foreign-language film The Salesman is a gripping story of crime and punishment, and a subtle exploration of relationships, both personal and public, set in the exotic — for Western audiences, at least — locale of modern-day Iran.

After the prologue, which opens with rather American, though naturally dated, images of sets from the classic 1940s play, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (hence the film’s title), in which the main protagonists, wife and husband actors Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hossieni), are performing, Farhadi shifts the action to a suburban Tehran apartment block. The building is in danger of crumbling and the couple must flee, along with all the other inhabitants. When one of their fellow actors Babak (Babak Karimi) offers them a vacant apartment, they gladly accept. All seems well, but the tense atmosphere, cultivated by the director’s use of deft internal camera movements and angles to push an immediate sense of claustrophobia and quiet menace within the new abode, hints that the good times won’t last.

We learn the flat has previously housed a woman who may have been a prostitute – a bad omen in such a restrictive culture for the morally upright, though also liberal, family. One day Rana, about to take a shower, unwittingly lets in a visitor she mistakenly assumes to be Emad, and the crumbling of their new home, and eventually their marriage, begins.

Emad arrives back at the apartment only to find trails of blood and learn that his wife has been attacked. She is in the hospital, unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. But mystery surrounds the incident. Farhadi (check his previous films About Elly, Acadamy Award winner A Separation and The Past) doesn't show us the attack or whether the invasion involved rape — given that he insists on making sure his work can be seen in his home country, the violence, sexual or otherwise, is all inferred. And Rana, perhaps for fear of damage to her reputation, claims not to remember the details of the incident and shuns any legal involvement.

This is a wonderful window into the life of the contemporary Islamic republic: the censorship, the measured behaviour, and the tamping down of women. The film reveals that public humiliation is the ultimate insult, the most extreme of punishments, in such a society.

Emad, who by day teaches literature to a class of young men, wants answers. His manhood has been challenged, his wife and his home have been violated. The formally kind, sensitive husband turns cold as he pursues his own form of justice and, ultimately, revenge in his investigations into the crime.

With public life in this society so controlled, the play is, in many ways, where Rana and Emad get to truly display their emotions. She breaks down at one point on stage, then later cries genuine tears as Linda, the wife of Miller’s sad, self-pitying Willy Loman, over her husband’s casket in the American play’s final act, while earlier Emad angrily improvises in one scene as he vents at Babak for failing to warn the couple about the history of their new apartment and its former inhabitant. 

Despite its faint allusions to Miller’s play, this film is actually a nuanced observation of the interplay between the sexes. Farhadi himself sums up what he sees as the differences in the genders he enjoys playing out in his films: “... men usually think about the past more than women. Women, because of their ability to give birth to children, look to the future more. Women ... can make a shift from the past to the future. But men usually hold onto the past.”

Rana spends most of the film struggling with her pain, yet is also able to show mercy, to move on — in sharp contrast to her husband, who degenerates into a vindictive, wronged, old-school man, and who ultimately pays the price for his pointless pursuit of vengeance. The riveting, despairing ending underlines the shifts in their relationship and how Emad’s failure to cope with and accept his and his wife’s own humiliation leads only to loss.

The setting of Farhadi’s The Salesman might be alien, but the emotions his characters feel certainly aren’t. We empathise with them, understand their internalised pain, even though we may not always be sure of their motivations. And this movie is such a lovely change, with its non-didactic un-Hollywoodness. What a joy to watch something without being told how to feel or think.