Probably the most well-known aspect of this Oscar-winning film—at least for U.S. audiences—is that its director, Asghar Farhadi, boycotted the 2017 Academy Awards in protest of Trump’s Muslim ban. When The Salesman won Best Foreign Picture—the second such award for Farhadi—female astronaut Anousheh Ansari accepted the award on Farhadi’s behalf, reading his statement condemning the ban.
The quiet resolve behind such a protest is evident in Farhadi’s films. His first film to win a Best Foreign Picture Oscar, A Separation (2011), details the dissolution of a marriage as the wife seeks a separation that is not granted by the Iranian courts. While tragic events occur, some violent, the film itself is quite subdued.
The same could be said for The Salesman. Actor Shahab Hosseini plays Emad, a husband, literature professor and stage actor who plays Willy Loman in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. As if there weren’t enough drama there, the film begins with his apartment building literally falling apart, forcing his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and him to evacuate. They find a temporary apartment for rent, but soon after they settle in, an unseen man enters the apartment and attacks Rana.
The film alternates between Emad seeking vengeance for his wife’s attack, Emad teaching and Emad acting on stage. The inclusion of Death of a Salesman into the plot is supposed to suggest themes between the two stories, but, frankly, it was an unnecessary subplot. Emad feels unable to change his circumstances because of Rana’s reluctance to go to the police, but this parallel to Willy Loman is too broad to serve the main plot. Because Emad is a teacher, Farhadi could have easily had Emad teach Miller’s play without having to act in it.
As Emad continues to search for the perpetrator, his desire for revenge overpowers his desire to help his wife to the point where their marriage is on the line. A certain type of vengeance is finally executed but at a high moral cost.
Farhadi excels at creating realistic scenes, from using real locations, to using actors who almost go out of their way to avoid histrionics. The Salesman is a convincing depiction of how a couple would actually handle such a trauma. As Emad, Hosseini is fascinating to watch as he suffers inwardly, letting his rage grow like a slow burn.