In one of the opening scenes in The Salesman, Emad (Hosseini), a literature teacher and theatre actor in Tehran, discusses Iranian writer Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi’s screenplay, The Cow, with his class. The students affectionately refer to their teacher as ‘salesman’ because of his lead role in an Iranian adaptation of American playwright Arthur Miller’s highly acclaimed play.
“Who has read Death of a Salesman?” Emad asks his students.
“The enemy,” one of the boys responds, deadpan.
The class bursts out laughing.
As they joke around and go off on tangents, discussing everything from literature to luxury vehicles, we witness a heart-warming moment between a popular teacher and his students. Beneath this light-hearted banter, however, a weighty statement is being made by the film-maker.
Director Asghar Farhadi’s political views are well known. He did not attend this year’s Oscars – where The Salesman won the award for best foreign language film – in protest against the travel ban imposed on people from several Muslim-majority countries by the American administration. He also routinely angers hardliners in Iran because of the taboo subjects he takes up in his films.
By referring to the two literary giants – one from ‘the enemy’ country, who faced discrimination during the McCarthy era, and the other from his own homeland, who was forced into exile after the Islamic Revolution – Farhadi is paying tribute to those who create works of art despite facing state censorship and repression. (Interestingly, Ayatollah Khomeini is said to have admired the 1969 film adaptation of The Cow, popularly referred to as the saving grace of Iranian cinema, because it kept the industry from being banned outright by revolutionary zealots.)
The Salesman, however, tackles these themes at a more personal level. When censorship is internalised and endorsed by the individual, it generates dire consequences.
The film opens with a still of a bedroom partially blanketed in shadows, the warm glow provided by a lamp being the only source of light. With an unmade bed at the centre and the jarring sound of machinery being moved around in the background, the scene evokes a sense of disarray.
In the next scene, we see a light boy adjusting a spotlight over a dining room. It becomes immediately clear that the ‘home’ being shown is actually a stage set: an artificial residence. The screen then goes black — as if curtains have been drawn. The only sound that can be heard is of steel hitting steel and the rustling of footsteps — establishing a sense of foreboding.
As we delve straight into the action, we are introduced to a young couple – Emad and Rana (Alidoosti), both struggling theatre actors – who are forced to evacuate, as the building they live in begins to collapse. A friend offers them a place to stay in his rented apartment.
Just a few days into their new lives, Rana is brutally attacked and left unconscious on the bathroom floor. As the couple try to cope with the aftermath of the attack, their relationship takes a blow.
The Salesman is soaked in symbolism and is, therefore, open to multiple interpretations. Buildings, for instance, are carefully constructed edifices meant to be sturdy and able to withstand the wear and tear of nature. They are a microcosm of civilisation itself: beneath carefully constructed facades lies nature in all its raw power: unforgiving, unpredictable and untamed.
As a cultured, well-mannered and educated couple, Emad and Rana are the epitome of the civilised. When faced with violence that goes against civilised conduct, they do not quite know what to do with themselves or what the acceptable mode of behaviour could be. Faced with questions, they struggle for answers.
There are hints of sexual assault on Rana, but this is swept under the rug — nearly as often as suspicion about it arises. They do not want to talk about it with others, because of the shame associated with it, and they do not know how to talk about it with each other either.
The society they move in does not quite know how to talk about sex and the body: when the subject shows up in school textbooks, the books are thrown in the bin. When confronted with the reality of sex as commodity, people go around in circles, saying everything they can possibly say, but without ever using the word ‘prostitute’. Children learn the concept of shame associated with their bodies and its natural functions before they even hit puberty, refusing to remove their clothes in front of a caregiver from the opposite sex.
So when darker aspects of human nature manifests itself in full force brutality – as in the sexual assault – Emad and Rana are left dumbstruck. Their inability to say anything eats away at them.
While films such as The Salesman often get dismissed as ‘boring’, Farhadi is able to sustain the audience’s attention, keeping them guessing till the end and cutting through the drama every now and then with sharp humour. His can be categorised as a ‘message-driven’ film, if you pay attention, but it never preaches. Neither does it curse, shout, patronise or demean to get its point across.
And this is what Iranian directors – from Majid Majidi to Abbas Kiarostami to Farhadi – do so well. They lay their point across gently, inconspicuously, and leave it to the audience to take away from it whatever they like. While they do address political, social and religious issues, they execute them in subtle ways, often in passing, through mundane interactions between ordinary people. Their films have a distinct ‘grace’ to them.
The Salesman is especially relevant for societies like ours. As global politics and entertainment – and politics as entertainment – become shriller, cruder, and increasingly polarising, Farhadi’s style of conducting a conversation becomes all the more necessary.
This article was originally published in the Herald's April 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a former staffer of the Herald.