This 2017 Academy Winner for Best Foreign Film defies easy categorization. The masterful Asghar Farhadi is the director, screenwriter, and producer of the 2013 Cannes Winner, “The Past”, the 2011 Academy Award Winner of “A Separation” and his most recent, The Salesman. All three of these Iranian films are idiosyncratic narratives of Shakespearean themes . The first destabilizes the past reminding us of unintended consequences (The Past), the second focuses on the nature of truth when there are no moral absolutes (A Separation), and the third reveals primal vindictiveness and revenge when one’s family is attacked (The Salesman). The Salesman, despite its low dramatic temperature and pacing, will raise questions about compassion and loss and human decency.
An Iranian couple –Emad and Rana– move to a new apartment. The couple are both acting in a production of “The Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, with some censorship by the government. After a horrific act of violence, Rana does not wish to report the incident, raising questions for her husband Emad and the audience. Rana withdraws emotionally from the trauma and her performance as a stage actress is affected. The air between Rana and Emad remains disturbed. Not capable of communicating their shock and injury to each other, Emad becomes obsessed with demanding revenge from the guilty party and sets out to find him. As the wounded husband who cannot speak of the unspeakable, Emad transforms into someone Rana cannot understand. Now what is unsaid cannot be said. Each is afraid to say the wrong thing more than saying nothing at all.
Miller’s play, The Death of a Salesman” is the cinematic device to create a play within a play, having Enad and Rana mirror the marriage of Willy Loman and his wife Linda. However, with their marriage’s fragility as one of the central plots, the cultural divide between Iranian culture and American seems to obstruct the viewer’s comprehension or sympathy for both Enad and Rana, although Rana’s loss is more poignant and more accessible.
Not as impressive a film as his two earlier award-winning ones, “The Salesman” suffers from its play-within-a-play conceit, a parallelism between the heart-breaking marriage of the Lomans and that of Emad and Rana. This dramatic device did not succeed for this reviewer, and in fact was a distraction, although wondering how this couple would come to terms with their trauma held my interest.