The Salesman (2016)

Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 10.40.56 AM

The title comes from Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman.  Emad and Rana are husband and wife, both in the staged play and in their own lives.  Willy Loman’s journey parallels Emad’s as both men lose their grip on their environment, soon followed by their own frame of mind.

When Rana is attacked by an unknown assailant, Emad grows determined to seek vengeance on the man.  He’s a mild-mannered teacher by day, but as his frustrations mount, Emad becomes single-minded in his pursuit of this mystery man.

Rana’s attack blindsides both of them.  After they have moved to a new apartment building, she mistakenly opens the door when the man she believes is Emad presses the buzzer.  We then watch as the door slowly and ominously creeps open, but we cut away before ever seeing the man enter.

The fallout of the attack is seen through Emad’s eyes.  He is clueless about how to proceed and yet determined all the same.  He’s not sure what Rana wants, whether he should go to the police, find a new apartment or try to brush it all under the rug.  His frustrations have as much to do with his loss of control of his own life as with the man who instigated this all.

With other options exhausted, Emad sets his eyes on the attacker.  He has determined that this man must have been looking for the apartment’s previous tenant, a woman they determine was a prostitute.  Emad seems as furious with her for moral reasons as for what her way of live indirectly did to his own wife.

Following a couple of clues, Emad tracks down the man he believes to be the attacker.  He asks the man to come over one day under the guise of helping him move some things with his truck.  The man’s father-in-law instead shows up, and what follows is a thrilling, disturbing, claustrophobic conclusion.

This moment involves not just the two men but others as well.  It shows the more beautiful as well as horrifying aspects of family bonds.  As a group of people express their love for each other, others seem to drift apart.

It’s hard to describe more than this.  There is a power to The Salesman that I haven’t quite wrapped my mind around.  The film puts characters in upsetting circumstances and lets them fight their way out.  One character’s decision-making may not parallel our own, but we can nevertheless understand the motivation.

The characters in this film are damaged.  They are hurting from the very beginning, even before the attack which sets them on a new course.  These are characters with tight budgets but an endless love which soon reaches its limits.  By the end of the movie we see how far is too far.

Maybe The Salesman is so enthralling in the same way a good horror movie is.  We’re curious to see how far Emad will go.  At first he is someone we relate to, but soon he’s something else.  We understand his motivations before soon losing sight of the forrest through the trees.

His transformation is foreshadowed early in the film.  During a class, Emad talks to his students about their assigned reading, a short story called “The Cow.”

In “The Cow,” when an impoverished village loses its one cow, its owner goes insane, mooing and eating flowers as he imagines himself to be his beloved animal. “How does a man turn into a cow?” one of Emad’s students asks. (“Look in the mirror,” another cracks, provoking laughter.) The question, it turns out, prefigures what happens in “The Salesman,” even as the scene also suggests a correlation between the tragic protagonists of “The Cow” and “Death of a Salesman.” – Godfrey Cheshire, rogerebert.com

The story of The Salesman is about Emad’s transformation, even as the inciting incident has more to do with Rana.  There are really two stories here, as disconnected as Emad and Rana are themselves.  Were this film to be from her perspective we might watch a much different, even more horrifying reality.  She suffers a traumatic, senseless beating and then must see her husband corrupt himself under the guise of helping her out.

Near the end of the film Emad brings Rana to see her attacker held captive.  He’s in a sense showing off, like a house cat that brings home a dead bird.  She is understandably horrified, and Emad’s actions have the unintended effect of assuaging some of her own fears.

A lot is left to interpretation, but the way I saw it, all of Rana’s post-traumatic stress disappears when she sees how meek her attacker is, particularly as he lies helplessly on the stairs due to a heart condition.  As Emad lurks with sinister intent nearby, Rana can’t contain her grief, whether just at the man’s failing health or at the perplexity of it all.

The film will make you feel for her attacker.  Maybe it’s that complexity of emotion that makes this film so striking.  The story challenges you, and it’s hard to track where we lost touch with Emad’s own motivations.  He’s a character with an understandable grief which we see morph into something dark, like the journey of Jeff Goldblum’s scientist in The Fly.

So lasting impact… The Salesman is a tragedy.  We watch something unfold which feels both sensational and grounded.  Emad’s journey comes from a place of pain, and it suggests that maybe we all have this kind of capacity for self-destruction within us.

He’s the main character, I suppose, because of that theme.  He’s the destructive character who knows not what he does.  Rana will see things much differently, and she’s the one whose eyes we see the conclusion through.  We chart the descent through Emad, as he goes down a path of no return, and we see the results through the lens of the person who suffers the most as a result.

Up Next: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), The Time Machine (1960), Ballast (2008)

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