Director: Asghar Farhadi
Distributed by: Filmiran/Memento Films Distribution
Released: May 2016
BERNARD: But sometimes, Willy, it’s better for a man just to walk away.
WILLY: Walk away?
BERNARD: That’s right.
WILLY: But if you can’t walk away?
BERNARD (after a slight pause): I guess that’s when it’s tough. Good-by, Willy.
--from Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller
In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s tragic 1949 play, Willy Loman loves his sons, probably more than himself, but doesn’t know when to let their failures be their failures, and not his. The Salesman, 2016’s Best Foreign Film winner, has its own Willy Loman character, a teacher and actor named Emad. Like Willy, Emad will have a difficult time understanding that he can only control so much, and that as much as he may love his family, it is not always his place to protect them from their own difficulties.
|Emad and Rana|
Emad and his wife, Rana, live in an apartment building that is literally falling apart. And when I say literally, I mean literally—one night they are forced to evacuate because it seems like the foundation has shifted and the whole structure may come down on them. The couple have a friend named Babak who helps to set them up in a place where the former tenant had unexpectedly bailed, literally leaving everything behind her. And when I say literally, I mean figuratively, because you can’t leave everything behind. But this woman, it seems, left more than her material things in the apartment she abandoned, as Emad and Rana will soon learn.
Emad is a teacher of boys in a high school in Iran. The kids think the world of him, like Robin Williams’ students do in Dead Poets Society. They jokingly call him a “salesman,” because his other job is as an actor in a local theater, where his is starring as Willy Loman, with his wife as Willy’s wife Linda. Emad and Rana clearly adore each other, and cheerfully are setting up themselves in their new place.
Their relationship will get tested, though, when one day Rana, alone in the apartment, responds to the apartment bell by buzzing in her husband, leaving the door slightly ajar and going in for a shower. Only it turns out it isn’t her husband at all, and the next thing you know, Emad is walking into the apartment to find blood on the shower floor and his wife nowhere to be seen. He learns from neighbors that she was taken to the hospital, assaulted by the person Rana had let in. Rana will eventually be okay, at least physically.
|Hey Babak, maybe you coulda told us a hooker lived there!|
This is where Emad has difficulty. Rana doesn’t want to report the incident, and Emad does. He feels like she should either report it so the police and handle it, or else drop it altogether. This strains their relationship. Emad does some investigating, and it becomes apparent that the former occupant was a prostitute. Learning this also strains Emad’s friendship with Babak, whom he feels maybe could have mentioned that the previous tenant was a hooker. Emad will struggle with this situation with agony: He loves his wife and feels like he failed to protect her. But like the guy he is portraying in Death of a Salesman, he must understand that the past is the past, and that his family has their own choices, and potentially mistakes, to make.
This is the second Best Foreign Film for Iran, both directed by Asghar Farhadi and starring Shahab Hosseini, who gives a wonderfully understated performance as Emad. As in 2011’s A Separation, Farhadi allows the main turning point in the film to be muted, allowing the consequences to be the focus of the drama. In that film, Hosseini’s character gently pushes a pregnant woman out of his apartment, and we only later see how life-altering this event will be. In The Salesman, the assault happens off-camera, but the tension builds gradually afterward, as Emad deals with how his wife feels and his own need for vengeance. Taraneh Alidoosti is excellent as Rana, more Biff than Linda in this story, having had to deal with a painful experience and needing to handle it on her own terms.
|What if you can't walk away? I guess that's when it's tough|
Farhadi has a knack for telling a simple story with simple characters, while raising complicated and thought-provoking questions. In The Salesman, one of those complicated questions posed is when is it time to walk away? Because if you can't, that is when it gets tough.
The Title: فروشنده (in Persian), or Forušande. Emad is the not a salesman by any meaning of the word, except that he plays Willy Loman in his neighborhood theater. He is not the loser that Loman is, but like Loman, he acts irrationally, thinking he is helping his family. The title of Miller’s play is itself a major spoiler—Emad’s fate is not in question, but his relationship with his wife is.
The culture: As with A Separation, what struck me most with this film was its looking people on the other side of the world, seemingly so different from us as Americans, and putting them in situations that we can identify with. Emad is a good man, and he is lucky to have such a partner as Rana, but his temper and his inability to check himself may lead to him losing her.
Agenda danger: Famously, the director and actors boycotted the Academy Awards as a result of President Trump’s order temporarily blocking entry in the U.S. of Iranian citizens, as well as citizens of six other countries. But this film has no political agenda or message. It’s most controversial message is in pointing out the difficulty in communication between men and women, and in looking at when it is appropriate to forgive.
Best Picture that year:
La La Land. Spotlight.
Rating: This is the most recent Best Foreign Film winner, and as such, my last My BFF Project review. It is a great note to go out on. Most early winners of the prize, from the 1940’s on, with the exception of some Japanese films, tended to be Italian, French, or otherwise European. The Salesman, the second Iranian winner of the prize, is characteristic of American appreciation of film throughout the world (strangely though, India has never won the award). What makes The Salesman so interesting is how American it is, right down to the Miller play that lends it its title. Like what I consider to be the best Best Foreign Film winners, it provides a window into life in a place Americans may not be familiar with, and does so in a way relatable to folks who may have never lived more than a few miles from their birthplace. Films like The Salesman are the reason more Americans should be willing to read subtitles when they go to the movies.