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By Richard von Busack February 2, 2017
In The Salesman, we have a look at how Iranian artists are standing on crumbling ground. It was a winner at Cannes, for best actor and script, and now it's national news because of the Trump administration's ban on Iranians entering our nation.
Academy Award winning director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) has said he's not attending the Oscars this year, even if the ban is lifted. On the bright side, there's no publicity man for your film like the president of the United States.
It's an indication of the way Iranian films are made—immersive, circumspect, slippery—that they start with circumstances so familiar to their core audience that they don't need much explanation. The Salesman begins with an apartment shaking itself to pieces. An earthquake? A man-made quake, caused by some careless bulldozer excavation next door, made worse by chronic jerry-building in the capital city.
The clumsy construction leaves the home of Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), with cracked windows, gas leaks and crumbling plaster. An American film would begin with a search for financial restitution. In this part of Tehran, no one expects much justice. The couple transplants to a new, leaky apartment in a worse neighborhood, setting the stage for a more serious invasion of their home.
Emad is a film and drama teacher, starring in and staging a little-theater production of Death of a Salesman, with Rana in the role of Linda Loman. There are the usual difficulties—because of the censors, the actress playing the bad girl Miss Francis has lines about leaving a hotel room half-clad, while wearing a chador and a stout raincoat. Later, in a crowded classroom of unconvinced boys, Emad teaches the primordial film of the Iranian New Wave, 1969's The Cow. The story leaves the combative students baffled at the Kafka-like metamorphosis: "How does a man turn into a cow?" "Gradually,"
When Rana is in her new home later, she's attacked and beaten in the shower by an intruder. The extent of the attack is up to us to gauge. Rana denies she was raped—the viewer suspects she is in denial. The couple don't call the police, because the cops are going to regard Rana as a loose woman who got what was coming to her. Moreover, the previous occupant of their new flat was a prostitute, kicked out by the landlord, leaving all her stuff behind. Pathetically, the crayon drawings her child scrawled are still on the walls. There is evidence, however. In his haste, the assailant left behind his truck, his keys, his cellphone and a wad of money to pay for what he did.
Farhadi's style is direct and unadorned, and wise about city life. (The Salesman proves the urban proverb that living next to prostitutes is fine—it's their clients you need to worry about.) It takes a lot of skill not to turn this into a rape-revenge movie. Farhadi almost approaches that abysmal genre. Instead this first-rate director fascinates us with the way a "cultural" couple—to use the flattering word their new neighbors use—handles a mysterious attack, in a land where the husband is traditionally supposed to be more shamed by such an attack than the wife.
Alidoosti brilliantly evokes the trauma she suffered, and she shows a moral backbone no one in the film can match. The reveal of a highly pathetic culprit makes this the smartest kind of movie on the subject, up with Polanski's Death and the Maiden. But the castingÉnot to spoil, but Farhadi went a little far in his presentation of the culprit as an all-too-vulnerable human. There are certain crimes it takes some muscle and good health to carry out. Let's put it like this: Sherlock Holmes wouldn't buy the explanation. Otherwise, Farhadi's melodrama-free drama impresses with the bewildering hunt for truth amid chronic falseness and religious hypocrisy.
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