Just seconds into The Salesman, you sense tension – an emotion that Asghar Farhadi’s genre of cinema is underlaid with. An apartment complex in Tehran is dangerously shaking, threatening to collapse any moment. Among the ones running for life are the young married couple, Ebad and Rana, the film’s protagonists. They find refuge at a friend’s house and soon, shift to a modest terrace apartment. For a while, laughter is back. They make new friends – the house owner and his family who graciously help the couple move and arrange their furniture, like family. Everything looks perfectly fine. And suddenly, we are back in the Farhadi’s cinematic universe where every calm is quickly interrupted by an unforeseen calamity.
The film is on the lines of Farhadi’s Oscar-winning drama, A Separation, a tale of how a violent incident shakes up a middle-class home, and renders irreparable fractures to the personal relationships of those affected by it. However, in The Salesman, the crime is darker and the layer of tension never wanes. And Farhadi cleverly interweaves the film’s core story with Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman, a metadrama on marital relationships that the couple is directing and acting in.
When Ebad and Rana revisit their old apartment to pick up some stuff, they notice that a huge crack has formed on their bedroom wall. This visual becomes a metaphor to what awaits the couple in the days to come. A stranger violates their personal space and leaves Rana in a pool of blood, unconscious. Neighbours who attended to her suspect she was sexually assaulted. Farhadi constructs the whole incident through word of mouth, and not through visuals. Ebad who was away at that time, is given details of the incident bit by bit; he never learns it in the full form. Rana is in a rude mental shock. She says she doesn’t remember what happened. She divulges some information, but keeps going back and forth on it. On top of it all, she abhors this new apartment in which the couple has invested quite a lot of their savings. Caught in the middle of this muddle, the usually composed Ebad turns into someone he never expected to be – a man madly obsessed with retribution.
In Farhadi’s cinema, the crisis that drives the plot is always inadvertent, characterised by a moral ambiguity. In About Elly, the mysterious disappearance of a young school teacher from a beach resort snowballs into a graver problem of morality. Her friends realise that she is married, though estranged, and had come on the trip without the knowledge of her husband, who is known to be a wife-beater. You see people racking their brain about right and wrong while the young woman’s fate is still in a dangerous oblivion. Farhadi continues to play with this argument on right and wrong in The Salesman; a film that is is also about the psychology of vengeance.
When they move into this new apartment, the couple find a locked room where, according to the landlord, the previous tenant has kept some of her things. The woman asks him for more time to come back for the stuff, but Rana decides to break the lock. Ebad moves the woman’s things, including a little tricycle, to the front yard of the apartment. That night a rain drenches and spoils all the goods. While it never bothers Rana, Ebad seems concerned. He tries to cover the things up, protect it from the lashing rain. The attack on Rana is linked to this incident. Neighbours say the aggressor could be a ‘client’ of the previous tenant who was a ‘woman with many male companions’, a conservative middle-class euphemism for prostitute. Ebad suspects it could be a goon sent by the previous tenant as a revenge for barging into her room. In a certain sense, the film points its fingers at Rana for upsetting the apple cart.
It also looks at the way morality is perceived in conservative middle-class communities. The landlord, who initially claims to be just an acquaintance of the prostitute and laments in public for having rented out his place to her, later turns out to be a much closer friend of hers. When Ebad finally confronts the aggressor, he blames Rana for buzzing him into the apartment without checking the identity, and Ebad is defenseless. Rana’s refusal to recollect or part with the details of the incident could also be because of her fear of being shunned. Farhadi, like a perfect shrink, treats his characters sensitively, painting a vivid picture of their dilemma.
The film is flawlessly acted. There are prolonged shots where characters start a normal conversation that escalate to the level of loud argument and physical violence. The actors perform like there is no camera watching them. The final moments of the film is a spectacle, the brilliance of which has to be seen and experienced rather than be explained in words. Rana’s cold resignation from life turns into fear when she realises that her husband is in more serious a mental trauma than she is. Ebad, who had been a predictable gentleman until then, transforms into a beast whose movements you can barely guess. And the couple realise the magnitude of the rift that has formed between them.
The Salesman is yet another testimony to why Farhadi is one of the most important filmmakers of his generation. It is cerebral, fast-paced, raw, and thoroughly observant of real life. In his films, human relationships exist on a slack-line, as vulnerable as they are in real life. And the unique grey shade that he brings to his characters is fascinating. When they go on screwing up situations and jeopardising their lives, you expect the filmmaker to interfere and set things right. But Farhadi lays back on his chair outside the frame, setting free the course of things.
The Salesman review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.