Dir. Asghar Farhadi. Starring Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Farid Sajadhosseini
Asghar Farhadi is a hypnotic talent. His movies have an undertow capable of sucking us in when we have surrendered ourselves too fully to the waves. Scenes first unfold realistically; a husband stays behind after a show to talk to a censor, and his wife chooses to go home instead of waiting around; life then unfolds catastrophically. A door opens slowly and no one enters. Walls are used not to keep people in or out, but to hide them from the sight of others. Yet for all of this verisimilitude, the likely and stunning unhappiness that follows even the fortunate, Farhadi is not above a little obvious symbolism. In the first scene, an apartment building begins to shake, the windows crack, and people pour downstairs. The foundations no longer suffice and the building is ready to collapse, and while the building never does come down, it doesn’t mean that everything else remains standing.
There’s a wonderful, thumb-in-your-eye scene early in The Salesman, one that is satirical and predictive in equal measures. A climactic scene in Death of a Salesman occurs when Willy’s son, Biff, steals up to his hotel room uninvited and in need. He’s failed math as a senior, is in danger of losing his football scholarship, and has come to his father desperate for help and certain that this godlike patriarch—for even if Willy was never the mythic figure he claimed to be, Biff never caught on—will put it right. But then there’s laughter from the bathroom of Willy’s motel, and a woman appears in a towel. Biff is ruined by this moment, and his flash of enlightenment is the audience’s as well, the cord which became the knot tangling up the whole of Biff’s life. In the play performed in this Iranian city, the woman is not in a towel. She is wearing a raincoat, a hat, and a wig so that her real hair may remain covered. When she cries out that she cannot go out in the rain without her clothes, the man playing Biff begins to snicker: she’s wearing a raincoat, he says between giggles, and the actress storms off the set, leaving the dress rehearsal. At first glance, here is a statement about the quotidian censorship of Iran. And then as the movie progresses, this scene becomes vital. For one thing, a prostitute’s belongings are put out of an apartment so Emad and Rana can move in; it rains on those belongings almost immediately. A man searching for that prostitute to lighten his burden finds Rana in the shower instead, and that surprise kicks off its own chain of events not unlike those felt in Biff.
Farhadi wants us to know that the salesman of the title is the old man (Sajadhosseini) who comes to help Emad move some boxes out of his apartment. He sells clothes out of the back of a truck at night, a job that must be as thankless and draining in modern Iran as the job of a traveling salesman was in America of the late ’40s. More through luck than cunning, Emad has tracked down the delivery truck left behind at his apartment when the assailant fled; he gambles that the attacker is a young driver named Majid (Mojtaba Pirzadeh) and hires him. It is the young man’s future father-in-law who shows. He has heart trouble—just coming up the stairs was an ordeal—and at first Emad is bitterly disappointed. It is not long, though, until the old man begins to act suspiciously, Emad’s disappointment turns to epiphany, and proof is obtained from a telltale cut on the man’s foot. From there, Emad sharpens his vengeance. He locks the old man in a closet for hours, returns to him after a performance, and summons his family to the apartment so he can let them know what their father has been up to. Emad, who would have otherwise seemed like an ideal candidate to empathize with this sad old man, is vicious to him, so vicious that Rana threatens to leave him for good if Emad carries out his plan to humiliate him. As Linda in the show, Rana seems to have internalized the holy pity of the housewife in ways that Emad, playing Willy, cannot fathom. From the beginning she has refused to allow Emad to go to the police, and although she is so afraid at home that she cannot shower or sleep without Emad in the next room, she rejects any form of recognizable comfort. Much like Linda, who is so trapped within the Loman home that she may as well be buried in it, Rana has prioritized her domicile. She may be a talented actress, but the greatest joy we see from her is when she has made dinner for her husband and the preschool-aged son of another cast member. (They look for SpongeBob together in the video stores but can’t find it. Alas! Shahab Hosseini has an unexpectedly decent SpongeBob impression, and in that scene we get a glimpse of what Farhadi could do if he decided to reboot Leave It to Beaver.)
Looking at this old dolt with no real prospects and a bellyful of shame, Rana can see that he panicked when he struck her and ran. What he did to her was wrong, but in her eyes it is not unforgivable; seeing him is genuinely cathartic, as if she were the audience and the man defending the last shred of his honor were the performer. Ironically, it is Emad, who plays Willy in the show and ought to be able to recognize the strains of a similar character in real life, who has no sympathy. It is a testament to the unpredictability, if not the outright failure, of art as a tool for change. Perhaps Rana might have forgiven this man even if she wasn’t acting as Linda Loman, but it is certain that the pretend Willy Loman is completely insensible to the pleas of a real one who has wronged him. Young, strong, financially stable, and of late happily married, Emad is all of the things that this stranger cannot be, and each of those advantages is exploitable. Only a sudden but expected heart attack that forces Emad to save the man’s life—followed by the sniveling thanks of this real-life Linda and her daughter—keeps him from revealing the secret. He brings the man back to a room, closes the door, and settles the account his own way, disappointed by the fact that his revenge has been thwarted by a flock of weak hearts. He returns the man’s belongings to him, and in a single move slaps him across the face as he reaches out for the bag. As the old man slumps back against the door, unable to even look at Emad, a rather different piece of American literature casts its shadow:
“These men deceive themselves,” said Roger Chillingworth, with somewhat more emphasis than usual, and making a slight gesture with his forefinger. “They fear to take up the shame that rightfully belongs to them. Their love for man, their zeal for God’s service,—these holy impulses may or may not coexist in their hearts with the evil inmates to which their guilt has unbarred the door, and which must needs propagate a hellish breed within them. But, if they seek to glorify God, let them not lift heavenward their unclean hands! If they would serve their fellow-men, let them do it by making manifest the power and reality of conscience, in constraining them to penitential self-abasement!…”
Emad and Chillingworth both have a point. Justice is worth something, and in the mind of the latter it is worth much more than that. Shame is a powerful force, and in the case of Dimmesdale and this old man alike I think it highly likely that this public humiliation would be just. One ought to feel shame when one steps out to see another woman while married, and then exacerbates the problem by injuring an innocent woman. Yet both Emad and Chillingworth fail to understand that the administration of mercy is even more like God than the administration of justice by godlike power. Emad is in a situation to obliterate the old man, and by the end of the affair it’s clear that the joy is not primarily in putting his mind at ease but in the slash-and-burn dopamine hit he gets from exerting this power. In earlier scenes, he grappled for edges and footholds. He lords a student’s cell phone over him; he improvises during a performance to get back at the man who found him the apartment. In this scene, he does not struggle. He chooses to explode.