There are no heroes or villains in the cinema of Iranian director Asgar Farhadi, only the helpless victims of situations far beyond their control. The director’s 11th feature, the Oscar-winning The Salesman, starts out as a home-invasion thriller that proceeds to become a meditation on the precariousness of life on the margins of a big city.
The film is set in Tehran, but begins with an incident that could have taken place anywhere in the world. The incident becomes the central metaphor for the crumbling lives of its young couple protagonists – Emad (Shahab Hoesseini, who worked with Farhadi on About Elly and his international breakout A Separation), and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti).
Forced by the poor state of their apartment building to find a new house in a hurry, Emad and Rana move into an apartment with a dubious past. When Rana is assaulted, the spouses react differently to the trauma. Rana is unable to move beyond the incident, while rage bubbles inside Emad as he begins steadily tracking down the man who he thinks has caused harm to his wife.
The duo also star in a stage production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Their domestic life is disrupted by the event, the facade that protects them from the tribulations of the outside world is shattered, and the hopelessness of the classic play seeps out of the proscenium into the lives of its cast.
Farhadi’s films are suffused with an oppressive atmosphere, and there is something increasingly formulaic in his storytelling. If films such as The Fault in Our Star (2014) are the starting point of the new “sick-lit” genre, Farhadi is steadily pioneering the neo-realist version of it. His characters are destined for failure and we become aware of the trajectory of their lives long before it becomes apparent on the screen, but Farhadi does not relent. Every painful situation is followed to its logical conclusion, to no-one’s benefit.
Like Farhadi’s A Separation, which was a minimalist courtroom drama, The Salesman has none of the frills that a genre movie with a similar subject would have. There are no explosions of violence, nor is catharsis offered to the characters or the audience. More than the question of whether Rana will ever be able to move on, what becomes integral to the plot is whether Emad is able to reclaim a semblance of power to salve his feeling of emasculation. In the absence of a clear resolution, the movie becomes an empty attempt at showcasing the vagaries of life, so dear to its filmmaker.