If you’re seeking a feel-good movie, this isn’t it.
In “Forushande (The Salesman),” writer / director Asghar Farhadi has created a dreary, depressing, and at times brilliant dissection of suffering, revenge, morality and mortality. Farhadi delicately and cleverly plays with gender conventions by setting this film in his home country of Iran while using a stage production of “Death of a Salesman,” Arthur Miller’s classic play about the American Dream, in an orchestrated unison.
At the heart of the story is schoolteacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), two part-time actors who have a love for the craft and spend their free time performing in a theater troupe. By acting in this fantasy world, they are each given the ability to become a new person by hiding behind the mask that’s created by costumes and makeup. When Rana carelessly leaves her front door ajar (in anticipation of her husband coming right up) after a rehearsal, little does she know that her life is about to change. When she mindlessly hops in the shower to wash her hair, a stranger (Babak Karimi) seizes the opportunity to enter the apartment and attacks her in the bathroom.
Much of the film is spent dealing with the aftermath of the attack. Rana either cannot or does not want to recall many details about what happened, and all that’s left behind is the assailant’s truck, a few bloody footprints, and a whole lot of emotional anguish. Her relationship with Emad gradually becomes poisoned by the mystery, and that evolves into mental torture for both of them: she is debilitated by shame, he is infatuated with vengeance.
These are richly developed (and incredibly well acted) characters who are trapped in the ideals of their gender roles within the Iranian culture. There’s a clear societal mandate as to how men and women are expected to behave, even if they feel conflicted about it inside.
Rana solely blames herself for the incident and doesn’t want to face the public scorn and humiliation that reporting the attack to the police or her neighbors would bring. She refuses to speak about the incident out of fear of disgracing her husband, yet he wants to take matters into his own hands in an attempt to get justice on the perpetrator. Her insistence on keeping quiet is the cruelest torment for both of them, and their crumbling marriage is set against the backdrop of the stage production and its rigid acts. There’s a fantastic scene where Rana cries out to Emad for help after breaking down on stage in the middle of a performance. It’s a crushing display of sorrow and suffering, a moment so distressing and painful that you can feel her agony and taste her tears.
Eventually the person responsible is found and confronted, and this is when the film really hits its stride. Envelopes are pushed, albeit gently, and morals are tested. The mystery reveals an unlikely assailant (there are several clues to keep you guessing along the way, at times making it unclear if Rana is making it all up), and the story touches on an individual’s resistance or ease at stepping over the line and into the gray area when it comes to personal integrity and ethical behavior.
Farhadi frames the action in cramped, confined, and crumbling spaces, which elevates the tension tenfold and makes every movement, glare and spoken word feel more devastating than the next. He creates such an intimate portrait that at times you’ll feel like you need to look away because it’s too emotionally painful to watch. He’s also a little heavy handed with the symbolism, like when the couple’s apartment literally starts to fall apart around them (an early shot of Emad staring out of a window that slowly begins to crack is the visual equivalent of a smack on the head). The ending rings a bit false and the closing shot is a little clichéd, as the characters spend the entire film being forced to hide behind and suppress their true thoughts. But when you are so skilled at writing and storytelling (and your actors are so phenomenally understated), even a simple idea reaches a certain level of gravitas.
This isn’t a thrilling, bloody revenge tale (if that’s what you’re after, go see “John Wick: Chapter 2”), but rather a film that’s filled with quiet intensity and hushed fury that’s fueled by heartache and the roles we are forced to play in life.