Watch This: The Salesman

For years promoting the U.S. releases of foreign films, again and again I heard them described as “quiet.” Quiet and compelling. Quiet and taut. Quiet and affecting. It’s no wonder so many worthy imports fail to reach a large audience. Who wants to spend two hours watching a lot of quietness – which is to say, a lot of nothing – on screen?

Which is why, even though it is in many ways, I will not describe Asghar Farhadi’s arresting new drama The Salesman as quiet. Yes, it employs more than one long stretch of dialogue-free action, and yes, the power of the film is in its nuances, the reaction shots and on-screen reveals rather than spit-fire dialogue. But what Farhadi has achieved (again) through this restrained approach is a poignant, timely and, odd as it may sound to an American audience about a film coming from Iran, a universal commentary on relationships – with each other, ourselves, our homes.

Emad and Rana perform together in a local theater troupe (currently presenting Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman), and when construction next door to their apartment threatens to topple their building as well, they find a new place through a fellow actor. The previous tenant has left a room full of her belongings, but their friend assures them she’ll return soon to get it all.

So Emad and Rana, an ordinary urban, middle-class couple by any definition, settle in to their new home despite the circumstances. As Rana prepares for a shower one evening, the door buzzes; expecting that it’s Emad, who’d stopped at the supermarket on his way home, she absentmindedly buzzes him in, leaving the front door open as she steps back into the bathroom.

A very real anxiety gripped me immediately, less than a third of the way into the story, confirming an indication of the tension ahead and the deft hand with which Farhadi would present it. As any single woman living alone can tell you, you NEVER buzz someone in without checking who it is first, even if you are expecting someone.

When Emad does return, he finds evidence of an attack, blood on the bathroom floor and no Rana in sight. Rushing to the hospital, he finds her suffering from a deep head wound and no memory of the incident. Clearly shaken, the two return to their apartment and try to return to life as normal. The show must go on. But she’s struggling with post-traumatic stress and he’s determined to get to the bottom of what happened.

So sets in motion a complex but satisfying journey into the ripple effects one tragic incident can have on the lives it touches. Frequent Farhadi collaborator Shahab Hosseini (A Separation, About Elly) infuses Emad with a modern chivalry and, even in the most intense moments, a warmth that maintains his humanity throughout. He’s out to right a wrong, make no mistake. Yet he’s as aware as anyone that, as they say, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti, from Farhadi’s earlier About Elly) has the most arduous journey, confronted as she is at every moment with the scene of the crime; it’s understandable she’s having a hard time making sense of it all, and Alidoosti’s ability to express it all in a flash – the quiver of her chin, an icy glance – is unparalleled.

In 2016, according to my own tracking, I watched far fewer foreign films than in previous years, and films like The Salesman remind me why I need more of them in my life (and, if I may be so bold, you do, too). Here is a story from a country that otherwise is anathema to many an American – nuclear deals and dictators and on and on. It’s not too far fetched, though, to say the film, as it explores a husband’s duty to his wife, a city’s responsibility to its residents, an actor’s obligation to their audience, could go a long way in normalizing the unknown. It’s all happening a world a way, and yet it’s all so familiar.

The Salesman has been garnering accolades and honors from every branch of the Awards season machine, and deservedly so. Named Best Foreign Film by the National Board of Review, it was nominated for a Golden Globe in that category and is up for an Oscar, too (a ceremony Farhadi will miss, thanks to the chaos outside the realm of film and art). It’s made the rounds at film festivals, too (Cannes, Toronto and awarded a Special Jury Prize here in Chicago!). Don’t let the foreign label fool you, though. There is common ground to be found here, and Farhadi is the perfect storyteller to delve into it.

The Salesman – dir. Asghar Farhadi; written by Asghar Farhadi; starring Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti. Opens in Chicago 2/3. Official Site

Passes the Bechdel Test: n/a
Passes the DuVernay Test: n/a