Short Take: The Salesman

(Asghar Farhadi, Iran/France, Cohen Media Group, January 27)

Asghar Farhadi’s movies lure viewers into competing sympathies with intractably opposed positions. Whenever our biases tilt toward one character, new twists force us to recalibrate them. The Salesman reprises this knack for moral quandary, using a meta-theatrical premise to interrogate what it means to identify with someone, or to project roles upon them.

Emad (Shahab Hosseini, who won Best Actor at Cannes) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti, tremendous) are starring in a production of Death of a Salesman while settling into a new apartment. One night while Emad is out, Rana is assaulted by an intruder she accidentally allows inside. She either cannot recall or cannot admit key details of what transpired. Enraged by his wife’s suffering but unable to inhabit her perspective, Emad takes a page from Hugh Jackman’s script in Prisoners, tracking specific culprits while liberally distributing blame.

In a rich irony, the likeliest suspect mirrors Willy Loman in many respects. Can Emad respect the humanity in the kind of incoherent man, dishonorable yet pitiable, he labors to convey onstage? How do specters of imagined women inform men’s conflicts with each other—and will the needs and viewpoints of actual women survive those escalating rivalries? Bruising but elegant, conceptually intricate within a street-realist style, The Salesman asks through its final shots: when we stare at each other, do we see each other, or only ourselves?