Asghar Farhadi’s latest, The Salesman, begins and ends in the same place: a spacious house in an old crumbling building in Iran. It makes sense, because The Salesman is the kind of film where characters react differently to similar situations. At the start of the film, Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a school instructor and a theatre professional, is evacuating his house, along with his wife. Moments later, he sees a mother shouting for help, asking for someone to escort her son with disabilities out of her house. Emad rushes to her place, in the adjacent building, and gets him out safe. Emad, at the end of the movie, faces a similar situation. He sees an old man, surrounded by his family members, coughing on the stairway of his old building. But now, Emad stands frozen in his place, watching the old man in pain, observing from a distance, but doing nothing about it. The two ‘Emads’, in these two scenes, aren’t different, and that’s the point: That we don’t quite know ourselves, that our seamier side – one that demands revenge, for instance – isn’t nonexistent, that our humanity is malleable.
Emad and his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), at the start of the movie, are working in a stage play of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. And, as expected from such a set up, life imitates art. A scene at the beginning of the film performed in the play – where the head of a family about to get embarrassed because of a prostitute – repeats itself in the end, in real-life. The relationships between Emad and Rana, Emad and Babek (their friend who helps them secure the new house) change in real-life, whose effect is evident on stage. At one point, Rana breaks down while acting, and is unable to perform. In this portion, Emad, knowing something’s off with her, is desperately trying to salvage the scene – like one would try to save a failing relationship. In another bit, Emad subconsciously improvises on stage and insults Babek, calling him a degenerate.
The couple’s miseries can be tracked back to a recent night. A few days after Emad and Rana find a new house, the latter is assaulted by a stranger, in the bathroom, and this incident turns their lives upside down. Slowly, we see a new side of the calm and compassionate Emad. He becomes suspicious of Rana (wondering if she’s telling him the truth about the assault), devoid of empathy (struggling to understand her subsequent emotions) and irritable (snapping at his friends and acquaintances). Farhadi’s economy is impressive; he shows how our composure (and virtues) can be unsettled by one incident, how precarious they are; how we are – whether on stage or off it – acting all the time.
Farhadi is also unbiased. He closely observes every major character, painting a contrasting picture of them, before and after the assault. Before the incident, for instance, Rana is more practical, less kind. Emad, in contrast, is more understanding and sympathetic. When the old tenant doesn’t collect her belongings within the first few days of the couple moving in, Rana puts it out in the open, on the mercy of wind and rain. Emad stores them somewhere safe when the rains hit the roof. But when it really matters, Rana’s much more mature, showing a capacity to forgive. Emad, on the other hand, shaped by a new desire for revenge, is a shadow of his former self: rude, callous, even dangerous. These subtle, but crucial, changes in characters imply the importance of context, and how tough it is to understand someone, especially when their acts are viewed in isolation: that we are, essentially, composed of interconnected stories – a small change in one affecting the whole.
As is always the case, it’s tough to take sides in this film. Everyone’s right, everyone’s wrong. Everyone has their reasons, everyone is helpless. Like Farhadi’s previous films – About Elly, A Separation and The Past, The Salesman, too, unfolds like an anti-thriller, revolving around a crucial revelation, but the film is much bigger than what it’s trying to uncover. However, The Salesman lacks the urgency and immediacy of its predecessors; it is also relatively more straightforward. After a point, the plot finds itself in a corner, with limited directions to branch out, and, as a result, it can intrigue the audiences only so much. Besides, if you’ve seen Farhadi’s previous films, the motifs in The Salesman – the ethical dilemmas of doing the right thing, the moral failings of everymen, the blurry lines between remembering and forgiving – aren’t particularly novel either. Having said that, you can always count on Farhadi to ask us the most crucial question: What makes us human? And on that count, The Salesman doesn’t disappoint.