Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman would never be categorized as a horror film. But with its reservoirs of escalating tension, sustained unease, and figurative and literal aftershocks, it might as well be.
To wit: An old apartment building groans under the weight of itself, its cracks slowly spiderwebbing across its windows and walls, as its tenants flee. One of those tenants, having relocated, finds bloodstains, left like so many awful breadcrumbs, on the steps of his new walkup, leading right into his apartment. The normally benign ding of a toaster as it spits fresh bread punctuates a somber moment with a startling, opinionated jolt. A child feigns to enter a darkened bathroom, stating matter-of-factly that “it’s scary in there.”
A sense of cloistered terror permeates The Salesman’s core, from its opening stanzas to its emotionally taxing conclusion. But if it’s a horror film in disguise, it’s equally a moral parable in plainclothes, as well as an unfussy mystery and a backstage drama, its many textures coalescing around its central theme: Like so much of Farhadi’s work, The Salesman charts the crumbling foundations of middle-class domesticity.
Also like his best films — About Elly and A Separation, to name two — the disintegration is triggered by an event as random as it is horrible. Young couple Emad and Rana (Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti, both Farhadi regulars), having been forced to evacuate their previous apartment, have just moved into a new place with an apparently sordid history — its previous tenant, they gradually learn, was a prostitute who is currently between domiciles. She’s left a trove of personal belongings in a locked room, with a promise to retrieve them once she’s settled. This seemingly minor detail will have an unforeseen impact on The Salesman’s dramatic nexus.
In his day job, Emad teaches high school; at night, he’s a stage actor, along with his wife, who currently star as Willy and Linda Loman in a Farsi production of Death of a Salesman. One night, after the show, Rana, who has left the theater before her husband, asks Emad to swing by the supermarket. With Rana home alone, the apartment buzzer sounds. Assuming it’s Emad, she buzzes the visitor in and leaves her front door ajar before jumping in the shower.
Farhadi lingers on the open door too long for comfort, realizing that a few beats of silent dread are a more potent screen device than showing us what happens next. We see Emad check out at the supermarket and return home to find those bloodstains, which culminate around the bathtub. He speeds to the nearest emergency room, where his wife is being treated for a traumatic brain injury. The neighbors were there to bring her to safety. He wasn’t.
This is where the marital fissure begins. For Emad, finding his wife’s assailant and dispensing justice becomes an obsession, in part to assuage misplaced guilt for his not being able to prevent the attack. He receives little assistance from his increasingly, and understandably, withdrawn wife. Rana, the extent of whose physical and psychic wounds manifest gradually, refuses to speak of the night in question, to the police or anyone else. Emad’s quest for the truth curdles into resentment of Rana’s PTSD symptoms. Inevitably, their Death of a Salesman begins to skid off its rails, as their personal lives bleed onto the stage.
Farhadi’s ability to understand the mindset of every character — he finds empathy even for the assailant, whose discovery constitutes the film’s gripping final act — remains his signature attribute as a humanist director. The Salesman’s plot is a domino pattern of tragic coincidence that terminates, like Arthur Miller’s play, in a dead body, and a sense of sorrow quietly radiating from an otherwise ambiguous dénouement.
If we don’t know exactly what to think, we get the impression that we’re not alone — that Farhadi, in his uncritical observation of human foibles, doesn’t have the answers. He recognizes that raising the questions, and posing them with such bracing verisimilitude, is more than enough.
THE SALESMAN. Director: Asghar Farhadi; Cast: Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi; in Farsi with English subtitles; Distributor: Cohen; Opens: Friday at Movies of Lake Worth, Movies of Delray, Living Room Theaters and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, the Tower Theater in Miami and the Coral Gables Art Cinema