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The Salesman - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
The Salesman
Directing: A
Acting: A-
Writing: A
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A

The Salesman is a movie with almost no action, propelled solely on the strength of its dramatic suspense through dialogue, and still it wastes no time grabbing your attention. As soon as it passes the opening titles, which present a theatre set soon enough revealed to be a production of Death of a Salesman, the narrative jumps right into a building being evacuated because it is about to collapse due to construction going on next door. Tenants are panicking, packing up and leaving their homes. Windows are beginning to crack, and you expect everything to come crumbling down at any moment.

There's an easily gleaned metaphor there, when it comes to everything that happens through the rest of the story. As with that building, however, the crumbling that does indeed happen winds up being something a bit different from the expected.

An exquisitely written film by Asghar Farhadi, The Salesman was this year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, as was his excellent 2012 film A Separation. And like that film, The Salesman offers subtle insights into Iranian culture -- including certain ways that Western culture seeps into it. After all, the childless married couple here are described by neighbors as "in the arts," and they are both starring in the aforementioned production of Death of a Salesman. And yet, there is reference to the possibility of authorities censoring three different passages in the play.

Emad (Shahab Hosseini), the husband, plays the title character. Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), his wife, naturally plays the wife. I suspect those with a familiarity with Death of a Salesman that I do not have would find deeper insight into the parallels to Emad and Rana's life. My ignorance of this play -- which I know at the very least to be one of the most famous American plays of the 20th century -- does nothing to diminish how perfectly constructed The Salesman is.

The couple have to find a new home, and the play's director has a unit in his building he offers them. The previous tenant has a bunch of stuff still crammed into one of the rooms, and they struggle with getting her to come and retrieve it. When Rana comes home early from a performance, she gets into the shower right after leaving the door open for the person who buzzed the intercom, who she assumes to be Enad. The next thing we know, we're following Emad up the stairs, tracking bloody footprints and finding the shower empty and bloody. Rana is found at the emergency room, having apparently been attacked.

The thing is, there is much Rana cannot remember, and too many details that leave her vulnerable when it comes to the idea of going to the police, which Emad first suggests. Rana is badly shaken, and Emad is consumed with finding who came into his home. A curious detail here is the suggestion that Rana is left vulnerable to blame just because she left the door open. Farhadi seems to be getting at the nature of gender inequality in Iranian society, but he does it in incredibly subtle ways. In one telling scene, Emad has to explain to one of his students that a woman who had seemed to be rude to him in a cab likely was treated badly in a cab once, and now she assumes all men are the same. Emad comes across as a rather understanding and evolved, modern man -- except maybe for how consumed he is with the idea of exactly revenge. And even his intended mode of revenge is not what you might expect. At least it's not what American audiences would tend to expect.

There is almost no onscreen violence in The Salesman, and yet the tension is pervasive and effective: the risk of something terrible happening is always there. Characters feel real fear for many reasons, and you fear for them -- even the would-be villain. There are no clear-cut heroes or villains here, only gray areas that get even grayer the closer the characters get to the truth. It's mesmerizing from start to finish, all on the strength of its narrative force, its dialogue, and its performances. It's easily one of the best films of the year.

Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini struggle with a traumatic event in THE SALESMAN.

Overall: A
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