SALESMAN By Asghar Farhadi – Reviewed February 4th, 2017
Amid the exceptional political tumult that’s overtaken all things in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration Mr. Farhadi’s latest work, an Oscar Nominee from Iran for Best Foreign Film, is likely lost in myopias. The Muslim Ban, which will keep him from attending the Oscar ceremony this year, may have sealed its fate as an artwork likely to be preserved in the amber of its moment. SALESMAN, which, indeed, is very much a political work that invites cross-cultural readings, has more to say to its Iranian and American male and female audiences than those readings provide. Obliquely, it reflects how the art of the personal, of the human, is among the first casualties of politicized art.
The film, much summaried, is the story of Emad, a school teacher/actor who, with his wife, Rana, mount a production of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman as the childless couple are uprooted from one crumbling apartment only to suffer an unseen violent assault in their next. The wife’s traumatic unknowing about the event and her husband’s slowly consuming search for her victimizer contains the story. But the atmosphere is one of suffocating suppression beneath a veil of shame. Sympathetic neighbors avoid assumptions about the nature of the attack and are hesitant to reveal the behavior of the previous tenant, a woman with many male friends. Rana insists Emad not go to the police, and details of the incident are withheld from their theater colleagues. Shame at being unable to protect his wife, find them a new, safe apartment or even locate a substitute for his film class drives Emad's search for the assailant who’s cell phone, car keys and truck were left behind in his headlong flight from his crime.
Deep, personal humiliation boils under a lid of complicit silence. Interaction after interaction in SALESMAN is inflected and distorted by an oppressive fear of public humiliation. What it shares with Miller’s Death Of A Salesman is a social milieu whose destructiveness is culturally (rather than politically), personally self-imposed.
As much as Miller’s play forms a touchstone to SALESMAN’s themes, two lesser noted film references are Farhadi’s clear referents. Emad, exhausted by the search for Rana’s assailant, and his duties as director and star of Miller’s play, falls asleep while screening THE COW for his class, a 1969 Iranian film directed by Dariush Mehrjui. Emad’s callow students take phone pics making faces beside him, dance and shadow-play before the screen while the climactic scene of Mehrjui’s film unspools. It’s a scene of profound public humiliation, the film’s hero, Hassan, mad with grief over the loss of his beloved cow (and his status as owner of the only cow in the village) is roped like a heifer and dragged through the village’s muddy streets. Emad wakes to his students mockery. Furious, he grabs the phone that contains pics that could prove his downfall. And, apparently, pornography -- that could doom the student as well. Emad, after a long, vengeful pause, relents. What is lost on his students, and some of its American audience, is the pivotal position THE COW occupies in Iranian film and cultural history. Ayatollah Khomeini, after the Iranian revolution, indirectly gave his blessing to the independent cinema movement in Iran when, after seeing THE COW, he publicly announced his approval. “I like this film.” It permitted the growth of a non-commercial, non-Western influenced film culture in Iran, one that has permitted directors like Farhadi expression.
Hassan’s eponymous cow is pregnant when she dies, a death whose causes, like Rana’s victimization, occurs off-screen and under a cloak of suspicion. Also married but childless, Hassan’s internalization of his loss slowly transforms him into a mad consumer of hay. Alternatively, when a recovering Rana makes pasta for a fellow actress’s child, both her and the child’s delight in the meal is abruptly thwarted by Emad who removes their plates. Having exposed that this meal was inadvertently purchased with cash left by her assailant, he won’t allow its nurturance to override his sense of dishonor.
The other prominent film referent, tellingly, is Ingmar Bergman’s 1969 drama SKAMMEN (SHAME) starring Liv Ullman and Max Von Sydow as a childless couple whose relationship is sundered during a military coup by her offscreen liason with their collaborationist friend, the Mayor. Her act of betrayal, likewise revealed by the presence of money left on furniture, leads the humiliated husband to revenge himself on the Mayor. A poster of SKAMMEN peeks out in the now almost empty original apartment where Emad confronts Rana’s attacker. Summoned there, Rana pleads with Emad not to exact revenge on her attacker, an elderly man terrified of having his actions exposed to his family.
SKAMMEN is a peculiar Bergman film, one with a mixed critical reputation, due in part to its uncharacteristic political (and hypothetical) setting. Its production was on the heels of a famously humiliating public rebuke. While screening Eisenstein’s STRIKE in 1968 at the Swedish Film School, Bergman’s students walked out during an anti-war protest, calling him an out-of-date “bourgeois” artist. Perhaps these two parallel film stories are Farhadi’s own way of suggesting SALESMAN be taken for the particulars of its characters’ situation more than its political parallels.
For as much as Emad and Rana are urban intellectuals enacting Miller’s American Death Of A Salesman in contemporary Iran, they are their own culture’s subjects whose history and circumstances can’t be reshaped by our readings, or their readings of stories from cultures other than their own. What does have universal resonance is Emad's decision and its destructive consequences, actions compelled by the animal, the raw, the instinctual, the reflexive shame at our naked humanity -- the shame-driven economy of human urges.