“Which then is best? He that layeth his foundation on piety to Allah and His good pleasure?
Or he that layeth his foundation on an undermined sand-cliff ready to crumble to pieces?”
A multi-layered meta-adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman is a slow-burning drama that gestures obliquely beyond its intimate domestic setting toward the massive, impersonal forces that are shaping modern Iran. From housing shortages and urban sprawl to moral opprobrium and government censorship, the film seems to comment on the destructive reverberation of these forces in the lives of everyday people among Tehran’s middle class. What’s more, beneath the surface of Farhadi’s domestic drama is a subtle critique of the fundamentally gendered, culturally informed notions of honor and moral obligation.
Emad, a high school literature teacher, and his wife Rana are actors in a local theater company who are suddenly awoken in the middle of the night to find their high-rise flat collapsing. The displaced couple relocates to a cramped, semi-vacated apartment at the recommendation of a fellow actor; but when an unknown intruder attempts to force his way into Rana’s bathroom, the couple’s world is thrown into emotional chaos, with Emad resolving to discover the identity of the intruder without the benefit of police involvement. Starting from a relatively simple dramatic premise - a stranger forcing his way into the wrong woman’s bathroom - The Salesman unfolds with startling emotional complexity and speaks to the understandable limitations of a moral worldview based on an unquestionable male authority. Equal parts chamber drama and vigilante thriller, the film transcends its seeming mundanity and instead proves to be a brilliantly observed and acted story of mounting obsession.
Echoing Arthur Miller’s play, The Salesman culminates with the dramatic discovery of infidelity, and its potential to expose and destabilize the fictive basis of a nuclear family. Drawing from his experience in the Iranian theater, Farhadi brilliantly recasts The Death of a Salesman to demonstrate the practical as well as ideological hurdles of adapting Miller’s text for a contemporary Iranian audience - for his characters struggling to realize a sanitized production of a mid-century American social satire, as well as those faced by Farhadi himself, who as a filmmaker attempts to push the boundaries of critical dissent. During a rehearsal of the play, a cast member balks at the absurdity of a fully-clothed Iranian woman believably portraying Willy Loman’s half-dressed American mistress. Later, in the anxious bustle of opening night, rumors circulate among the actors that additional scenes will have to be excised or altered at the last minute to appease religious authorities. Similarly, whether out of self-censorship or willful omission, Farhadi skirts depicting the home invasion in full, leaving the audience to infer what exactly took place. Through such a dramatic ellipsis, he acknowledges those unspoken restrictions of decency currently imposed upon Iranian cinema, and the impossibility of conveying a true feminine perspective.
Consider another 2016 film about a woman’s attempt to cope in the aftermath of a home invasion - Paul Verhoeven’s subversively explicit Elle (previously reviewed by Samuel B. Prime) - in which Isabelle Huppert portrays a Parisian femme libérée whose blunt, matter-of-fact approach to her past trauma and unmet desires is equally in direct opposition to the political correctness of her colleagues, as well as the elliptical ambiguity and innuendo of The Salesman. The heroine of Verhoeven’s film combines survivor and avenger into a single character, who uses her power and privilege as a high-salaried tech world entrepreneuse to launch a covert investigation of her assailant, while at the same time attempting to realize her own sexual and emotional needs. Elle is a genuinely shocking psychodrama, as well as a darkly farcical comedy of manners; one that Verhoeven, with characteristic black humor, deftly prevents from careening into the abyss of fetishized revenge fantasy.
Farhadi and Verhoeven both utilize sites of fictional roleplaying to investigate their characters’ ability to maintain public face in the wake of an invasive private trauma. These collaborative sites of formalized make-believe (a video game production studio in Verhoeven’s Elle; a community theater in The Salesman) explore both masked desire as well as the outward-facing demands of bourgeois propriety. As male-dominated fields, theater and gaming work primarily to realize male desire, and both forms privilege the exploration of men’s emotional subjectivity to the exclusion of female perspectives. With their shared emphasis on the transgression of domestic space, the two films highlight the ultimate failure of an ethical worldview that remains violently male-centric. In the wake of eruptive male destrudo, women are disproportionately and irrevocably affected (men are immune).
In a society that attempts to maintain inflexible religious prescriptions against the onslaught of an increasingly complex and interconnected modernity, individuals are crushed from above by the downward economic pressures facing the working and middle classes, and trapped from below by the ever-present bedrock of a theocratic worldview. Unable to push back against the forces disrupting his life, Emad seeks to impose control by policing the domestic, and sublimates his frustration by dispensing vigilante justice, ironically, on an aging, out-of-work middle class salesman. Although the putative moral of The Salesman - the tempering of masculine vengeance through feminine mercy - seems heavy-handed, a more nuanced critique lurks at the margins. The city, with its shoddy, slapdash construction, aging facades and structural instability, symbolizes the fragility of those rigid ideological systems that, while normally dormant, have the potential to rupture without warning in ever-widening ripples of cause-and-effect. Seizing upon the recurrent motif of a collapsing apartment building that is at the mercy of unseen, tectonic forces, The Salesman presents a deceptively intimate story that obscures its own subtle and yet far-reaching critique from within the system, and dares to condemn the edifice of modern masculinity as something so unquestionably fragile as to be uninhabitable.
- Brendan Lucas