The new revenge thriller from Asghar Farhadi, the Oscar-winning Iranian writer-director of the brilliant Oscar-winner A Separation, begins in classic style. Tehran housewife Rana and her schoolteacher husband Emad (Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini, both outstanding) are busy thinking about becoming parents and, by night, starring in a community theater production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. When shoddy construction leads to their apartment building suddenly crumbling around them, they and their neighbors run for safety. From there, Rana and Emad get hurled—literally and figuratively—into a nightmare that is partly bad luck, partly of their own making, and a realization that shakes them to the core. It’s a powerful structure used Alfred Hitchcock used time and again, and Farhadi brings his own slow burning, naturalistic changes to it.
A fellow actor (Babak Karimi) offers Rana and Emad an apartment and they quickly move in, learning the hard way that the former tenant, who refuses to retrieve her belongings, was a prostitute who scandalized the neighbors by keeping late hours and shady company. One night, when Emad is kept late at rehearsal, Rana hears the intercom and unthinkingly buzzes in a man she mistakenly believes is her husband. Emad finally returns to find the stairwell and apartment bloody and Rana has been “hit on the head” while in the shower—but it’s strongly implied that she has been sexually assaulted. The aftermath of the attack is deeply unsettling and ambiguous, with Rana insisting that she must move on, yet clearly badly traumatized and wanting to be left alone. She refuses to speak with the police, fearing public shaming. Meanwhile, Emad becomes increasingly frustrated that he’s failing—and possibly losing—his wife.
Never seeking Rana’s opinion or endorsement, he strikes out on his own to investigate the crime, badgering his landlord for information about the earlier tenant, chasing down an incriminating cell phone and an abandoned pickup truck. The assault becomes all about him and his obsession with doing something. He wants revenge, all right, but on whom? Is he, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, mourning his own masculinity? Once he tracks down the true perpetrator of the assault, all the strands—even the strained, less-than-successful parallels to Death of a Salesman—knit together and the movie gains a focus, intensity and a deep sense of sorrow it’s been missing so far.
The Salesman lacks the multilayered magnitude and resonance of Farhadi’s previous two films, the masterful A Separation and the less successful but potent The Past, both of which dealt with relationships on the brink. Still, this is ambitious, well-made stuff—a quiet, well acted if overly schematic film that’s stronger on moral ambiguity and psychological nuance than on fast paced, cat-and-mouse thriller trappings. Still, from a filmmaker as gifted and committed as Farhadi, we’ll take it.
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