The cracks literally begin to appear in the first few moments of Asghar Farhadi’s latest release, The Salesman as the very foundations of Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana’s (Taraneh Alidoosti) home begins to crumble. All of the residents in the building quickly rush to grab their immediate belongings and scramble downstairs fearful they will go down amongst the rubble. After so suddenly being made homeless options are short for the couple, meaning they have to accept the first offer of a place to stay. It is only once they begin to move in do they realise the previous tenant left behind quite a large amount of their possessions.
When Rana is attacked in the new flat, the shady history of the former occupant comes to light, making it impossible for Emad to approach the police without bringing shame to them both. That embarrassment remains the defining emotion throughout, as Emad decides that he alone will be responsible for tracking down the person responsible for the assault. While all of this is taking place, they both continue to appear in a local theatre production of The Death of a Salesman, starring as the lead husband and wife.
Prior knowledge of Arthur Miller’s play isn’t a necessity to understand the parallels the director is trying to tie together. The faltering masculine constructs of both Emad and Willy Loman begin to converge as Farhadi moves between key moments in the play and the search for the attacker. As always the director's pacing is careful and deliberate, in no rush to force out a conclusion. This allows us the time and space to see how internalised Emad’s struggle becomes. One of a husband fulfilling a duty he feels he owes to his wife as her appointed protector.
Although the attack is not shown and kept intentionally ambiguous, Emad’s suspicions are made clear, as are the small warning signs given off by Rana’s behaviour. The mystery surrounding the assault helps to create a purpose for Emad to face up to testing questions, even though you can’t escape the feeling the situation feels a little contrived. In the final act there is some explanation given to how the clues left behind came to be in position, although never quite convincingly enough.
The gender roles that are foisted onto us from an early age can at times feel like weights pinning us down. Peer pressure is present not only within the dynamics of our friendship groups but felt just as tangibly in the family home. These expectations are central to the experiences of Rana and Emad, as they individually struggle with the damage caused to their relationship. An awkward moral triangle is completed when the backstory of the attacker only serves to complicate emotions.
Farhardi’s strength lies in his ability to extract a myriad of layered questions from a seemingly simple premise. The Salesman certainly demonstrates that once again, slowly positioning his characters into a messy situation that offers no clear solution. Perhaps, if the use of Miller's play had been made more relevant and the way we move toward the final showdown felt less manufactured, then we would have been talking about another Farhardi masterpiece. Unfortunately this time round, he doesn’t quite close the deal.