Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s latest film is heavily laden with slow-burning layers of undercurrents that climax in tense, whipsaw confrontations during its final minutes.
Change is more than in the air in Tehran in the opening sequence, in which there are panicked cries for evacuation in a comfortable apartment building. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) calls for his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), to leave, and he heroically helps a neighbor remove her disabled son. Is it an earthquake? Has a terrorist attack caused the boom and the dangerous cracks in the walls? No, it was the reverberations from the adjacent construction excavation that made the building uninhabitable.
In addition to teaching literature, Emad is too busy acting in a theater production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman to deal with the domicile emergency, and he pushes the theater manager to find him and Rana a new place to live. (She also acts in the play as Loman’s wife, Linda.) In the middle of a thunderstorm, the young couple moves into a new apartment but find the previous tenant’s belongings are still all over the place. Their new neighbors are quite willing to gossip about the former tenant—she was notorious for her loose morals and her frequent male visitors.
After a rehearsal, Emad calls to say that he’s on his way to the new home, and Rana opens the front door, leaves it ajar, and goes in to take a shower. Nothing is the same in their lives or relationship after the incident that follows; what exactly happened in what was at least an assault remains purposely vague. Like writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s earlier, more subtle explorations of what disturbs middle-class Iranians (About Elly (2009); A Separation (2011); and The Past in 2013), viewers aren’t witness to a crucial event but only to subsequent, escalating reactions.
The gossipy neighbors are quicker to tell Emad that he should have been home to protect his wife than to direct him to the nearest hospital. Rana, recovering from physical injuries, is so increasingly nervous and agoraphobic that she breaks down in the middle of Linda’s monologue mid-performance, yet she rejects reporting what happened to the police, possibly to protect her reputation. The increasingly frustrated Emad starts his own investigation, following clues and making assumptions.
Just as a viewer becomes restless at the slow plot movement, Emad sets up a trap for Rana’s possible assailant, but the struggle between his feelings for justice and vengeance and his macho closure gets stymied by the complicated and multiplying problems involving the working-class family of the man Emad believes was responsible for attacking his wife. (This family conflicts mirror the social stresses and generational tensions in the Loman family.) Once the whodunit is solved, the crisis becomes a moral one for Rana and Emad that leaves them emotionally exhausted and the audience not completely satisfied by the story or revelations (though Hosseini admirably switches emotions on a dime).
The Salesman is nominated for this year’s Academy Award for best foreign-language film. On the same weekend it opened in New York City theaters, President Trump signed an executive order restricting travelers to the United States from Iran, along with six other Muslim-majority countries. Farhadi issued a protest statement that he would not attend the Oscar ceremonies in “hope that the current situation will not give rise to further divide between nations.”