When Emad Etesami walks purposefully towards vehicles parked on a street outside his new and temporary apartment building complex, he is not a hero.
A lesser film than Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, which hits Indian theatres today, might have opted to add a layer of, say, background score and flattering framing to portray its titular protagonist, played by the wonderful Shahab Hosseini, as a righteous man. But no rogue cellos or violins creep in when Emad carries out actions driven largely, as we eventually understand, by a flaming need to assert his masculinity. His wife Rana, a captivating Taraneh Alidoosti, is his excuse to behave the way he does, when she, and the viewer, can tell that what eventually befalls him is of his own doing.
Farhadi’s penchant for putting identifiable characters in unfamiliar-yet-relatable situations, like an omnipresent social scientist observing the human race under a microscope, is alive and well in The Salesman, a gripping two-hour window into, yet again, a deteriorating relationship.
As in previous films like About Elly, A Separation, and The Past, he makes what is essentially a suspenseful thriller in the garb of what might be considered ‘arthouse’, if you like easy labels.
There is no non-diegetic music, the camera is often handheld, and the style of acting and treatment are both incredibly realistic. Here, there are no heroes, only flawed individuals who are shaped by their environment, and that’s what this film — or any of his films — are about.
As wretched protagonists go, Emad is an endlessly interesting one. A schoolteacher who moonlights as a theatre actor, he is a man who is used to being thought of as accessibly intellectual, the kind who watches Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films (evidence: a DVD of Uzak in his collection, keenly spotted by fellow critic and film nerd Uday Bhatia) but also knows his SpongeBob SquarePants references, and affable, as he is with his students. When an elderly woman accuses him of ‘manspreading’ in a shared cab and a student defends him, he laughs off the whole thing and theorises that the woman has tarred all men with one brush after a possibly unpleasant experience. He believes in sticking to established narratives as though they’re bound scripts, which is perhaps why his on-stage improvisations, as we witness twice in the film, are unduly aggressive. Life has a script, and Emad isn’t a fan of deviating from it.
But things go haywire right in the beginning, when Emad and Rana, who are playing Willy and Linda Loman in a Farsi adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman, are forced to hunt for a new apartment after their building suffers significant damages from nearby construction. A colleague and fellow cast member, Babak (Babak Karimi), offers to rent them an apartment he owns. A wintry Tehran serves as a backdrop for this story, described as a town that needs to be “razed” so that they can re-build it all again, foreshadowing what may be in store for the couple.
Emad and Rana are childless, although not for lack of desire to have a kid. The film never explicitly states it, but it appears to be a source of tension between the two. One evening, while Emad is buying groceries at a departmental store, an intruder walks in on Rana in the shower, assaults her, and flees, leaving his pickup truck behind.
Emad walks into see blood all over the home and the staircase, and no sign of his wife. He makes his way to the local hospital to find that the neighbours have taken a visibly traumatised Rana to get emergency treatment. Her injuries begin healing soon but their relationship, we learn, has suffered serious damage.
As always, Farhadi provides us with crucial nuggets of insight into life in modern Iran, which, with its clearly defined contours between traditionalism and progressivism, are likely to strike a chord with Indian viewers. These revelations come through moments: the single mother actress who is conscious of the fact that she’s portraying a prostitute; Emad’s subtle change in volume and tone when he speaks of a woman who “had many acquaintances, as it were”; Rana’s reluctance to approach the police, for whom there is a general sense of mistrust.
As always, the context is local, but the subtext is universal.
Emad is unable to understand or deal with Rana’s trauma, constantly mistaking her explicit request for emotional support as a cryptic desire for him to be her saviour. She wants to find the simplest way to feel better; he wants to find the most satisfying way. They are two well-read, extremely articulate theatre actors who are unable to communicate with each other.
Or rather, she can, but he doesn’t want to listen, because underneath all those layers of erudition, it turns out he's as alpha-male as they come. Like Willy Loman, Emad is forced to turn to his flawed, deep-seated idea of masculinity to deal with this crisis.
Hosseini, who won the Best Actor prize at Cannes last year for this performance, embodies the character incredibly, particularly in the film’s breathless climax. Alidoosti, in a slighter role, is equally outstanding, anchoring the film’s moral core firmly and delivering the movie’s most decisively badass moment in said climax. There’s no violence and no kineticism on display — all the heavy lifting is done by Farhadi’s screenplay (also awarded at Cannes), which gives high-stakes negotiation the yo-yo treatment, constantly keeping the viewer on edge. Perhaps it doesn’t quite match up to the heart-pounding intrigue we feel during the last act of, say, About Elly; and there is a moment towards the end that will feel like overkill to many; nevertheless, The Salesman is a worthy entry in Farhadi’s filmography, one that makes an increasingly persuasive case to end genre snobbery once and for all.
Whether or not you agree with its Best Foreign Language Oscar win — considered by many to be somewhat politically motivated — there’s no doubt about one thing: few living filmmakers can make films that are as accessible, as universal, and yet still unblinkingly honest, as Farhadi. At the risk of being insufferably idealistic, perhaps you don’t always need actual explosions to get Netflix-loving movie-watchers back into theatres; good, old-fashioned storytelling that could’ve happened to you or somebody you know may just be enough.
(The author is a film critic and culture journalist who resides in Mumbai. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at a leading website and has written for a number of publications. In his spare time, he makes music. When free from all of the above, he travels.)
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