2016, PG-13, 125 min. Directed by Asghar Farhadi. Starring Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi, Mina Sadati, Farid Sajjadi Hosseini, Mojtaba Pirzadeh, Maral Bani Adam, Emad Emami.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Feb. 3, 2017
Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Feature for his 2011 film A Separation, and he’s been nominated again for his latest film, The Salesman. He won’t be attending this year’s ceremony, following Donald Trump’s recent executive order barring Iranians and citizens of six other predominantly Muslim countries entry into the United States. That the Trump administration has wasted no time doubling down on the white nationalist politics that powered his campaign should surprise no one. But it might surprise Trump and his followers, so governed by a fear of “otherness,” to discover Farhadi’s films are more familiar than they are foreign. Aging parents, blended families, husbands and wives struggling to communicate and find affordable housing and choose forgiveness over revenge – these are not just topics of interest in Iran. They’re topics of interest for humans, period.
Farhadi’s films – which include the 2013 French production The Past, another masterpiece – are slippery to categorize. You could plausibly call them domestic dramas, but their dominoes-falling plotting and tense suspense make them almost thriller-like. With his latest film, Farhadi borrows beats from horror, too; as a front door forebodingly opens, the stomach drops with dread.
That crisis comes later. First, Emad (Hosseini), a high school teacher, and his wife Rana (Alidoosti) must abandon their home after a construction bulldozer compromises the infrastructure of their Tehran apartment building. Suddenly homeless, they unload their worries at rehearsal, where they’re both performing in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (he’s playing Willy Lomax, and she’s playing his wife). A castmate has a solution – a suddenly empty apartment in the building he manages. Rana sighs with relief: “For once it looks like we’re in luck.” These are the kind of words that make an attentive viewer flinch. There might as well be a road sign warning “bad things just around the bend.”
There are strings attached to this apartment. The past tenant has left all her things behind. Emad is sympathetic – after all, the crappiness of being kicked out of his own home is still fresh for him. The new neighbors shed some light on this past tenant, who had a lot of gentleman callers, the kind that leave cash behind. As Emad and Rana maneuver around her belongings still stacked in the apartment, it’s hard to argue: This past tenant is getting in the way of their present.
And then something terrible happens, which I’m not going to reveal here – only to say that it is a trauma that impacts Emad and Rana both, in different ways. Farhadi prioritizes Emad’s experience and his perspective, the injury to his masculinity; I missed Rana’s first-person observations in this intensely observational film, which is alert to the background sounds of children playing, a theatre production’s backstage action, and the foregrounded nattering of friends and neighbors, whose opinions all color Emad and Rana’s processing of this trauma. Still, Rana’s voice comes roaring back in the film’s held-breath third act, in which these amateur actors return to their old apartment to enact a drama with life-or-death stakes. This final 30 minutes are the film’s pièce de résistance.