Fresh off its Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign-Language film, Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman is a dazzling, darkly funny, quietly devastating human drama from the Islamic Republic of Iran. If you know Farhadi's work – and if you don't, search out About Elly, A Separation and The Past — you know you're in the hands of a major film artist. He is not one to underline the meaning of his films. He throws audiences into the thick of things and leaves us to parse its meaning. It's a compliment Hollywood films rarely afford us.
The title refers to a local production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman starring the film's two protagonists in, of all places, present-day Tehran. Shahab Hosseini won the best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his deeply affecting and layered performance as Emad Etesami, a literature teacher who is also playing Willy Loman. Emad's wife, Rana (the splendid Taraneh Alidoosti) is portraying Willy's wife, Linda, in the play. The symmetry allows the filmmaker to contrast the intense American family depicted in Miller's theatrical landmark with the more measured family life in Iran. Hosseini and Alidoosti, doing double duty, are both superb.
Farhadi opens the film with a literal tremor. The high-rise apartment where Emad and Rana live suddenly starts cracking. The cause is a construction project next door. But a feeling of unease persists even as the couple moves into a new flat that previously housed a single mother who may have been a prostitute – bad karma in morally restrictive Iran. Things come to a head when Rana, about to get in the shower, buzzes in a man she believes to be her husband. It clearly is not. Emad arrives home to find his wife unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. Farhadi doesn't show us the attack or whether the invasion included rape. Rana claims not to remember the details.
It's here that Farhadi defines character through action. Rana refuses police or legal involvement, fearing the repercussions to her reputation. This leads Emad to launch his own investigation, intending to be a one-man judge and jury. Is he seeking vengeance for his wronged wife or his own masculine pride? Is seeing the violent side of Emad emerge too much for Rana and her marriage? In rehearsal for Death of a Salesman, Emad and Rana let the fissures in their own troubled marriage bleed into what's happening on stage with Willy and Linda. Farhadi sometimes trips over his own grand ambitions. That will happen when a filmmaker defiantly refuses to play it safe. Don't take your eyes off the subtle shifts in balance between Emad and Rana. Attention must be paid.