Michael Bergeron
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Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman”

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There’s a small line that demarcates the cinema of cruelty (as practiced by filmmakers like Yorgos Lanthimos or Lars von Trier) and the cinema of altruism. Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi operates in the latter category and yet his films have select individual moments that show the darker side of the human psyche.

The Salesman could probably have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film last Sunday regardless of the controversy surrounding director/producer/writer Asghar Farhadi’s insistence on using the opportunity to protest the proposed travel ban imposed by 45.

Farhadi has now won two Oscars (for A Separation in 2024 and for The Salesman) in the Foreign Film category. To put that fact in perspective the most famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou has never won an Academy Award. Fellini has directed four films that won Best Foreign Film awards (La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, Amacord, and 8 1/2), while François Truffaut only took home one for Day for Night (La Nuit américaine). The most notable Iranian helmer Abbas Kiarostami, who died last July, never had a film nominated for an Oscar in any category. That’s not to say that any of these directors haven’t tasted award success from other prestigious film festivals.

Just like Marlon Brando who sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to pick up his can’t lose Oscar for The Godfather, Farhadi refused to appear even though the international travel ban on Muslims to America, which caused him to protest, was lifted by judges in a separate adjudication. Farhadi sent Anousheh Ansari to read his eloquent acceptance speech. Ansari was the first “self-funded woman to travel to the International Space Station.” No small accomplishment that.

Aside from the supposed controversy surrounding the film’s award traction, what about the film proper? Personally, I think both Amazon Studios who handles The Salesman and Sony Pictures Classics who distributes Toni Erdmann are leaving money on the table. Both of these films were scheduled to open in Houston two weeks ago but got pushed back because, even though Space City is technically the fourth largest city in America, Houston is still not a top ten theatrical market and both of these remarkable films are just finding a release date, with Salesman opening this weekend and Toni Erdmann on March 10. Then again smaller specialty distributors like Amazon and SPC have to alternately be admired because their bottom line doesn’t align with current trends of milking a film’s revenue from any kind of opening weekend.
Asghar Farhadi (R) directs Taraneh Alidusti (L) in a scene from “The Salesman” (Photo by Habib Majidi)

The Salesman takes place in contemporary Iran and follows a couple that play the leads in a theatrical production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” There exist desperate layers of meaning in the various twists of Farhadi’s script. By day, Shahab (Emad Etesami) teaches high school and Taraneh (Rana Etesami) is a housewife of sorts.

The opening scene, quite a tribute to Farhadi’s sense of genre, resembles a disaster movie with a one-take sequence of residence fleeing a building that has been condemned and has started to fall apart. We watch the action going up and down stairs and even though Shahab and Taraneh have lost each other they find each one other and start shouting from window to window across a courtyard.

Then there’s the play, which at times seems to be under the edict of the unseen government who might want to censor a scene because of the content. Just as an aside, when I was in high school I had a teacher who insisted that there were a hundred symbolic references in “Death of a Salesman” and each one she mentioned was more ridiculous than the last. This is a quintessential play of mortality from the 20th century and Farhadi doesn’t try to find symbolism so much as he depicts the labor of trying to put on a production while dealing with actual life unfolding before your eyes.

Because of the dilapidated building situation, the new apartment that Shahab and Taraneh move into has its own ghosts namely in the previous tenant who was a promiscuous woman. The former femme has left most of her possessions to be picked up later at a time to be determined. As quick as the next day, an unknown male who has come to visit the former tenant assaults Taraneh.

The details of the violation become apparent only through the course of the film. What’s certain is that the man left his car behind. Shahab follows the leads and discovers the owner of said vehicle, whereupon he devises a trap.

What follows makes The Salesman the film it is. Tight narrative construction and a sense that what took an hour to unwind passed by in minutes. Yet what transpires has such a cross of appalling behavior and righteous indignation that you’re constantly switching allegiances between characters.

The Salesman opens exclusively this weekend at the River Oaks Theatre.