“The Salesman” was hardly my favorite foreign language film last year, or even the best of the five nominated for the Academy Award, though its win seemed preordained. Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi had a film win the Oscar a few years ago, and once you’ve won one it’s much easier to get nominated again, and win again.
But given the political climate, the Academy couldn’t resist the temptation to send a message by giving the statuette to an Iranian filmmaker — especially one who’d loudly and publicly announced that he’d be boycotting the ceremony. He sent a representative (a female astronaut, no less!) to accept in his place.
I didn’t like “Salesman” as much as his other Oscar-winning film, “A Separation,” though both are about a husband and wife carefully negotiating cultural expectations for marriage in a modern Iranian theocracy. Neither explicitly attacks the system of Islamic laws, but takes pains to show how women — and men — can feel constrained by expectations upon them.
Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini play Rana and Emad Etesami, a married couple in perhaps their middle to late 30s. He’s a teacher who is also starring and directing a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” in which his wife is the female lead. They’re childless, and thus stand out from a society that cherishes family.
Despite the title, the movie’s not about the play, though there are similar themes about a common man yearning for respect and validation.
The dramaturgy kicks off when they move into a new apartment after their old one was damaged by some nearby construction. One of the actors in their play, an older man, has one to let after the old tenant, a single woman, has suddenly left. She’s left most of her stuff behind, which annoys Rana. But then one night she opens the door for someone she thinks is her husband, and is attacked.
It’s never explicitly stated, but Rana is raped or otherwise sexually abused during this incident. Because the neighbors found her and helped, everyone knows about it. Going to the police is not an option because she is mortified to have to repeat the story, and nothing will likely come of it.
There is implicit criticism in Farhadi’s script about how Iranian culture treats women who have been sexually abused — with the not-at-all hidden suggestion that somehow it was her fault for “tempting” the man, who is presumed to be virtuous. For Emad, he feels compelled by a sense of honor to take matters into his own hand.
The attacker was injured and left his truck behind, so that lends some clues. Eventually Emad tracks down the young man he thinks is responsible and tries to lure him into a conversation, but his soon-to-be father-in-law shows up instead.
As Emad becomes more obsessed with finding retribution, it becomes clear that for him this is less about making his wife whole again than it is about himself. An attack upon her is foremost a besmirching of his status as a Muslim man, even a liberal one who doesn’t seem to go to mosque much and stages infidel plays. Needless to say, their relationship quickly sours.
The performances are rather terrific, though the film wallows through a second act that seems like it’s only setting up the pieces for the final confrontation. It is indeed a powerful one, and worth the wait.
I would’ve given the Oscar to any number of other foreign films from last year — “Our Little Sister,” “Dheepan” and “The Handmaiden” were my favorites — but “The Salesman” is a worthy and weighty movie that gets inside the heads of another people very different from us, and yet not so much.