Until this week, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi was best known for his breakout film “A Separation,” a taut, excruciatingly detailed portrait of a marriage coming undone in modern-day Tehran. When that film won the foreign-language-film Oscar in 2012, Farhadi delivered one of the most moving acceptance speeches in recent memory, symbolically offering his award “to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”
Five years later, Farhadi’s new movie, “The Salesman,” has once again put him in the running for an Academy Award. He won’t be at this year’s ceremony, however, having announced that he’s boycotting the proceedings to protest President Trump’s recent travel ban, which has halted all travel by nationals from Iran and six other countries.
Should “The Salesman” win, Farhadi’s expansive, humanistic voice will be missed. But it’s still loud and clear in a film that, while not as completely riveting as “A Separation,” manages to touch on the filmmaker’s cardinal themes of moral reckoning amid crumbling institutions. From the outset, Farhadi announces his metaphorical intentions with blunt clarity: While a young, cosmopolitan husband and wife, Emad and Rana (Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti), rehearse their starring roles in an amateur production of “Death of a Salesman,” their apartment building begins to collapse. Relocated to a new dwelling, they discover that its recent occupant entertained a number of male visitors, a lingering, unsavory history that winds up haunting Emad and Rana in unexpected and cataclysmic ways.
Whereas the drama of “A Separation,” about a couple seeking a divorce within Iran’s confounding and hypocritical theocratic bureaucracy, stemmed organically from the characters and their setting, “The Salesman” is a more contrived affair, with Farhadi juxtaposing Willy and Linda Loman’s relationship with Emad and Rana’s own domestic psychodrama, which, as in the play, hinges on issues of masculine pride and a faltering sense of purpose. If the conceit feels obvious and strained, it still gives Farhadi and his actors ample room to explore the ambiguities of commitment, ethics and revenge in a society where mistrust in public servants runs deep. As in “Elle,” a movie with a similar plot line, no one dares call the police, even when a heinous crime occurs. The universe of “The Salesman” is one in which the personal and political have merged, not out of idealism or moral duty, but necessity.
That conundrum comes into play most forcefully in the film’s stunning third act, when Farhadi’s occasionally shaky parallels between art and life are distilled into a brilliantly staged, searingly confrontational chamber piece. That’s when Farhadi’s Hitchcockian knack for psychological suspense kicks in, and the nominal protagonist of “The Salesman” comes into strange and ultimately confounding focus. Arthur Miller’s play ends with Linda ironically telling her late husband that the Lomans are finally “free and clear” of the mortgage that had weighed the couple down for years. “The Salesman” concludes with another kind of debt being paid. In Farhadi’s habitually unresolved world, however, true freedom is a long way off.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic elements and a brief bloody image. In Farsi with subtitles. 125 minutes.