In 2012, acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for his magnificent divorce drama A Separation. He was invited to join the Academy, and it is believed that he accepted (though, because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not make its ranks public, this isn't certain). This year, Farhadi's latest film, The Salesman, has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. He will not be able to attend the ceremony in Los Angeles at the end of the month because of President Donald Trump's ban on travel into the U.S. for citizens of Iran (and six other majority-Muslim countries).
To smack bigotry and isolationism in the face would be reason enough to seek out The Salesman. But it's far from the only reason. In fact, the best reason might be the best reason to see any of Farhadi's work: because it is so beautifully human. Anyone who would voluntarily attend a Farsi-language film probably doesn't need this reminder anyway, but Farhadi's movies are steeped in the universality of what it means to be a person alive on the planet today: Yes, even people living under a religious theocracy are not so very different from those living in the United States. The people who populate The Salesman do not seem strange or alien: they look and feel very, very familiar.
When you heard the title The Salesman, did you imagine that a central character would be someone who makes a living shifting, I dunno, plastics or something? Not so much. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana Etesami (Taraneh Alidoosti) — "they're in culture," as a neighbor proudly describes them — are acting in a production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman in Tehran. Just as amateur enthusiasts, you see, not professional actors; Emad's job is teaching literature to university students. There is much discussion to be had about how the themes of the play seep over into Emad and Rana's real life: a somewhat delusional man who doesn't quite understand how the world works; a weary woman who is much more grounded than her husband.
The strength of their relationship is tested after a physical attack on Rana in their new apartment: a visitor mistakes her for the woman who previously lived there, and leaves her bloodied, traumatized and unwilling to be alone in what is supposed to be their new home. And it leaves Emad obsessed with finding his wife's assailant, either by going to the police — which she refuses to do for reasons he cannot seem to understand; so much shame would be involved! — or by tracking the man down himself.
Some of The Salesman's concrete details are a bit strained: One of the big clues Emad has for hunting down Rana's attacker is that he left his car and its keys behind, which seems an unlikely thing for anyone to do. But on the far more important emotional level, The Salesman is a delicately realized portrait not only of a marriage under strain but of a culture that is unwilling to speak bluntly about sexual matters. No one seems to be able to bring themselves to say the word "prostitute" in reference to the previous tenant; she merely, ahem, had a lot of visitors, or — as direct as anyone gets — was "promiscuous." More stinging, though, is that no one seems able to say the word "rape," not even to ascertain whether Rana was, in fact, actually raped in the assault.
And yet even that is more like our own culture than unlike. A Western movie might make no bones about precisely how a woman was attacked, but our discomfort with the topic is not so very different. (We do not see what happened between Rana and her assailant, and the few clues we are offered as to what transpired are ambiguous.) Rana's anguish in the aftermath is a trauma that might accompany any significant bodily violation, even if it were "merely" being confronted by a strange man in her own bathroom and knocked unconscious. And Emad's inability to know how to comfort his wife is a familiar male reaction to frustrated emotion: he directs it outward, at his quest for justice, and also inward on himself, in his simmering rage.
There's "no harm in asking questions," Emad tells his lit class when they're discussing books, but much of the pain all around in The Salesman comes from an unwillingness to deal directly with one's own life. Which was, perhaps, the problem of Miller's Willy Loman, too. It's also a problem that many of us would recognize, no matter where we live or what language we speak. ♦