Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman is another observant drama from a director who is quite taken with the sociopolitical scene in his home country of Iran, although this film is slightly different in its specifics than some of the filmmaker's previous work. Here, the specifics of the plot take slight precedence over the characters caught up in it, and as a result, the film finds itself firmly in the thriller genre. The constraint of such a label only really limits how open the film is in its examination of its loaded subject matter, such as the center of the film's mystery being the violation of a character's innocence. The film is still quite striking in that examination, though, and the performances of its two leads in particular anchor the film's ambitions.
One must build up to mentioning that point, however: The plot, as such, follows Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a literature teacher who juggles a respectful relationship with his students with an upcoming production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. The play, as one expects, lives or dies on the possibility of censorship: Three scenes in particular may mean cancellation and months of work that led to nothing. Emad is the director and stars as the ill-fated Willy himself, and among his cast is his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and their old friend Babak (Babak Karimi). Also prominent in their life currently is a move into an apartment owned formerly by a woman who, it is rumored, lived quite promiscuously. The loose and playful nature of Emad and Rana's marriage is so well-established that the turmoil it is about to meet has the proper gut-punch emotion.
On the eve of their opening night performance, Rana is attacked. The situation is fraught with coincidences that might as well spell an inability to prosecute: Thinking that Emad was returning from an errand, Rana unlocked the door (which Farhadi captures in an uncomfortable and suggestive long shot) and essentially allowed the attacker to enter. Meanwhile, there were no immediate eyewitnesses, so the confused and fractured account of the upstairs neighbors, combined with Rana's having not seen anything but the intruder's hands before blacking out, is nigh-impossible to prove. These might seem like spoilers, but the context here is key because Farhadi prioritizes them so heavily.
The film just stops at prioritizing those pieces of the mystery in time for a climactic and lengthy stint in that apartment (from which its new tenants eventually move out, owing to the fact that an earthquake ravages the complex at the film's opening) that is legitimately tense with moral query and bleak human frailty. The culprit is a pitiful man for reasons one may not be expecting, and Farhadi, keen humanist as he is, understands this remarkably well. The dialogue is rich with compassion for everyone here, because everyone is in the tightest of spots and under the heaviest strain. There are no people whose moral codes are black-and-white, and here we have two families in the balance, tipping over into the worst kind of pain because of a pair of decisions that could alter the parties involved forever.
The performances, as mentioned, are key here. Hosseini is great at conveying Emad's turmoil as the husband of a woman who has been shamed by another man. The act of investigation wages its war on this man's sense of moral justice, and the shift between a man who loves his wife and a man overcome with vigilantism is utterly convincing. Alidoosti is simply remarkable as Rana, traversing intense emotional terrain as both her innocence and feeling of agency as a woman (in a region that thinks less of it than she) are ripped from her, then as an act of justice is potentially mangled into vengeance. It's a powerful performance. Together in The Salesman, Hosseini and Alidoosti create a portrait of marriage that is as realistic in its tender and playful moments as it is crushing in its dissolution.
Shahab Hosseini (Emad), Taraneh Alidoosti (Rana), Babak Karimi (Babak), Farid Sajjadi Hosseini (The Man).
Directed and written by Asghar Farhadi.
Rated PG-13 (mature thematic elements, a brief bloody image).
Released in select cities on January 27, 2017.