Writer-director Asghar Farhadi (The Past, A Separation) specializes in domestic scenarios that verge on the melodramatic, all of them set in the societal cauldron that is contemporary Iran. His latest, The Salesman, extrapolates that insecurity and tension into a whole new sphere, as a hectically married couple attempt to move from one urban flat to another.
The lives of Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), a pair of stage actors, are complicated enough as they labor to put on a revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at a Tehran theater. Their fellow players are undependable, and Rana has medical issues. But their home life is a jumble too. They’re forced to move when neighboring construction undermines their entire building, and the new apartment comes with built-in obstacles that would try the patience of Willy Loman. It’s a dump, leaky and infested by stray cats, with a locked room containing the previous tenant’s junk. There’s also the matter of the delivery-man who wanders unannounced into the flat while Rana is in the shower.
So many calamities it borders on the absurd. In the modern Iranian tradition, Emad and Rana are shy of involving the police, who will ask too many questions. The government censors are worried about some of the play’s scenes. There’s an underlying strangeness to the pileup of misfortunes. The couple’s nerves are strained from frame one, and each new wrinkle threatens to destroy their equilibrium. But Farhadi keeps his screenplay from teetering into hysteria, and the logic of the situations never wavers, even when the central mystery boils down to an injured foot. First-class writing with acting to match in an ultra-realistic setting. The Salesman closes the deal with style.
This film was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Picture Academy Award, but last week filmmaker Farhadi announced he would not travel to the awards ceremony in Los Angeles, even if he were granted an exception from the current U.S. visa ban. So, perhaps Iran isn’t the only country in which artists fear and distrust the state.