The Salesman Film Review
By Dima Saqfalhait
The Salesman (2016) by Asghar Farhadi is an Iranian drama film that blends neorealism, with a dash of dark comedy and suspense, making the film a unique exploration of human psyche. What does it mean to be an empath? And can one be empathetic to oneself?
The film narrates the story of a married couple, Emad and Rana, who are also stage actors rehearsing an Iranian production of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece Death of a Salesman (1949). This of course brings another layer to the work, giving the film the feel of a story within a story, which is further conveyed through the film’s mise en scène. Mainly shot inside closed spaces (apartments, shops and a theatre stage), one constantly sees frames within frames.
Rana is assaulted by a stranger while showering in her own house. The man runs away, and Rana refuses to press charges against him, fearing shame and humiliation. Imprisoned by their fear of what people or police would say had they known what happened, the characters internalize society’s oppression and deny themselves the right to speak up and fight back. They try to put this behind, yet they cannot seem to make peace with their decision of remaining silent, causing tension to rise throughout the film.
In one of the earlier scenes of the film, Emad, who splits his time between performing at theatre and teaching at a boys secondary school, is shown teaching The Cow (1969) to his students, which is an Iranian play turned into a much acclaimed Iranian art house film. The Cow tells the story of a man, who, upon losing his beloved cow, goes crazy and turns into a cow himself. A student asks Emad: “How do people turn into cows?” Emad responds: “Gradually”. The man in the film did not turn into a cow overnight. Yet, it was triggered by the sudden death of his cow, which, to make matters worse, was covered up by the villagers. The man was told the cow ran away during his absence. Being unable to adhere to a reality he did not believe nor accept; the man became “a cow”.
To an extent, same thing happens in the film. With a background in theatre, Asghar Farhadi researched the works of Henrick Ibsen and Jean Paul-Sartre, before deciding on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman for his “story within story” theme, mainly for its exploration of humiliation. He wanted his characters to be actors, whose empathy, honed by years of theatre performance, comes to a true test. Will they find the man who committed the assault? And if yes, would they forgive him and most importantly forgive themselves for not having paid enough attention?
By now, I am used to heavy content in Iranian films. Nothing is simple, and films are rarely made to accommodate to viewers’ needs of escapism. What is quite unique about censorship restrictions is that it forces artists to be innovative in delivering their message. Although the film doesn’t show anything graphic, it is the fear you see in Rana’s eyes that engages your imagination in visualizing what happened, and its implication on the lives of the couple, long after the film is over. The Salesman is indeed a fine piece of art that combines depth and simplicity. Despite its heavy content, the film is a unique experience that is worth exploring.
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