Attention Must Be Paid To What 'The Salesman' Is Selling

Jan 30, 2017
Originally published on January 31, 2017 11:22 am

The first images on screen in Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-nominated Iranian drama, The Salesman, look like a spread in House Beautiful — a sofa, a table and chairs, a bedroom suite, all arranged just so, lit to a fare-thee-well. They are, in fact, part of a stage set. Real life is messier.

In the next shot, high school teacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini), and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who've been rehearsing Death of a Salesman on that stage set, are awakened in the middle of the night in their own place by shouts that their apartment building is falling apart. Cracks open up in walls, gas is leaking. Clearly they need a new place to live.

So it's a relief at rehearsals when a cast member mentions a just-vacated apartment he can rent them. As it happens, it's not entirely vacated. A woman's cat and belongings are still there — a woman who neighbors tell them, had many male visitors.

Still, Emad and Rana are desperate enough to move in anyway. Rehearsals go on. As do their lives. About a week later Rana hears the intercom and buzzes in someone she assumes is her husband. Emad comes home hours later to find bloody footprints on the stairs.

It's at this point that the film starts to become morally complicated, something you'll be expecting if you've seen filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's other films — his Oscar-winning marital drama A Separation, say, or his missing-person conundrum About Elly, both of which put characters in impossibly uncomfortable situations, then settle back to watch what they do.

Farhadi, had been planning to attend the Oscars ceremony on Feb. 26, but told the New York Times he changed his plans after President Trump signed an executive order banning visas for 90 days for anyone from Iran and six other Muslim-majority nations. The director explained in a statement that the "unjust conditions" of the executive order, even if he were to be granted an exception, would be "accompanied by ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me." He went on to articulate the hope that "the similarities among the human beings on this earth and its various lands, and among its cultures and its faiths, far outweigh their differences."

That faith in the similarities that connect us is inherent in the way he constructed The Salesman, using everything from a construction-site accident to a classic of the American stage to illuminate fault lines in a marriage in Tehran.

The Salesman is centrally about an invasive act that shatters a marriage, much as that apartment was shattered at the film's beginning. It has a lot of twinned notions like that — invasions of privacy in Emad's classroom and his home, judgments about prostitution among actors and among neighbors.

And possibly because Farhadi majored in theater in college, it's also savvy about the intersection of stage and screen, fiction and reality. How the formal beats of tragedy in Death of a Salesman, contrast with the messier beats of life for the people performing Death of a Salesman, to the point that Emad, playing Willy Loman, erupts in unscripted fury on stage at the man who rented them the apartment.

In the play, Willy worries about being able to provide for his family; Emad, playing Willy, worries about being able to protect his family — connections that tell you attention has been paid, and that there's what you might call universal value to what Farhadi's The Salesman is selling.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The executive order banning visitors and refugees from seven majority-Muslim nations is having some unanticipated effects in Hollywood. "The Salesman" has an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. Its director, Asghar Farhadi, is from Iran and subject to that temporary ban.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Yesterday, Farhadi issued a statement saying he will not attend the Academy Awards ceremony even if he were granted an exception. He said, the similarities among the human beings on this earth far outweigh their differences.

CORNISH: We have a review of "The Salesman" from our movie critic Bob Mondello. He says the film makes Farhadi's point in an intriguing way. It uses an American stage classic to comment on a marriage in Tehran.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The first thing on screen could be a spread in House Beautiful - a sofa, a table and chairs, a bedroom suite all arranged just so, lit to a fare-thee-well. They are, in fact, part of a stage set. Real life is messier. High school teacher Emad and his wife Rana, who've been rehearsing "Death Of A Salesman" on that stage set, are awakened in the middle of the night in their own place by shouts that their apartment building is falling apart. Cracks open up in walls. Gas is leaking. Clearly they need a new place to live.

So it's a relief at rehearsals when a cast member mentions a just-vacated apartment - as it happens, not entirely vacated. A woman's cat and belongings are still there, a woman who neighbors tell them had many male visitors. Still, they're desperate enough to move in anyway. Rehearsals go on, as do their lives. About a week later, Rana hears the intercom and buzzes in someone she assumes is her husband. Emad comes home hours later to find bloody footprints on the stairs.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SALESMAN")

SHAHAB HOSSEINI: (As Emad Etesami) Rana? Rana?

MONDELLO: It's at this point that the film becomes morally complicated. That's something you'll expect if you've seen filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's other films - his Oscar-winning "A Separation," say, which also puts characters in impossibly uncomfortable situations and then settles back to watch what they do.

"The Salesman" is centrally about an invasive act that shatters a marriage, much as the apartment was shattered at the film's beginning. It has a lot of twinned notions like that. And possibly because Farhadi majored in theater in college, it's also savvy about the intersection of stage and screen, fiction and reality, how the formal beats of tragedy in "Death Of A Salesman" contrast with the messier beats of life for the people performing "Death Of A Salesman" to the point that Emad, playing Willy Loman, erupts in unscripted fury onstage at the man who rented them the apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SALESMAN")

HOSSEINI: (As Emad Etesami, speaking Persian).

MONDELLO: In the play, Willy worries about being able to provide for his family. Emad, playing Willy, worries about being able to protect his family, connections that tell you attention has been paid and that there's what you might call universal value to what Farhadi's "The Salesman" is selling. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAMIAK SONG, "ESTE ES MI SECRETO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.