Iranian cinema is like a hand extended in greeting that does not intend to be clasped. Iranian films are made under strict guidelines. Love cannot be depicted on screen. A man and a woman may not touch each other.
Women must wear head scarves. The response of Iranian filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami, who died last year and more recently the double Oscar-winner writer-director Asghar Farhadi is to turn prohibition into a form of expression. If a man does touch a woman in a Farhadi film, the action occurs off-screen; the drama results from the aftermath. This was true of Farhadi’s 2011 breakthrough film, A Separation, in which a woman caring for the main character’s elderly father becomes injured. It is also true in his latest, The Salesman, which takes its title, rather obliquely, from Arthur Miller’s seminal 1949 play Death of a Salesman, a production of which takes place during the film.
This is only one of two seminal texts quoted by Farhadi, the other is the less internationally well-known 1969 Iranian film, The Cow, directed by Dariush Mehrjui, which is shown to a group of male students.
Both Death of a Salesman and The Cow deal with mental disintegration; in the latter an Iranian villager, Hassan, mourns the death of his beloved animal, starts eating hay and behaving as if he was a cow. In the former, Willy Loman is troubled by his indiscretions and their effect on his family. Both protagonists meet a similar fate.
The Salesman begins with a building shaking at its foundations – as metaphorical an opening as ever contrived. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) helps carry a troubled young man out of the building as a mass evacuation takes place. Unable to move back, he and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are offered an apartment vacated in a hurry by a troubled young woman who has something of a reputation. Whilst Emad is out, Rana opens the apartment door in anticipation of his return. When he gets home, Emad discovers that Rana has been assaulted. He plans revenge, or rather a restoration of honour, one that takes him down a dark path.
This you might think has very little to do with Arthur Miller’s play. Emad isn’t a salesman but a school teacher who at one point shows his pupils The Cow. He is well-liked but after the assault, his behaviour becomes erratic. He loses the trust of his class when he orders the confiscation of a mobile phone.
Emad is also an amateur actor and is rehearsing a production of ‘Death of A Salesman’ playing the leading role opposite his wife, who is cast as Willy’s wife Linda. There the parallels appear to end, but Farhadi is interested in the spectre of The Woman in Miller’s play, Willy’s mistress, who effectively destroyed the family. A phantom woman – or more accurately her reputation – wrecks havoc on Emad’s home life.
The film is tightly plotted and builds to a tense climax in which you desperately want Emad to change the course of his behaviour. Although Farhadi has been criticised for following the rules, there is a scarcely coded attack on muddled thinking and the dangers of even liberal educated Iranians being swept up in ideological violence.
Not only is the film utterly gripping, but it has moments of levity too, notably when the couple look after the son of one of the cast members. Another American icon is unexpectedly mentioned – Spongebob Squarepants; the theme tune resists a Farsi equivalent.
The Salesman packs a considerable emotional punch and ranges wider than A Separation. In an ideal world, both The Salesman and Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann would share the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The world isn’t ideal; even clever people don’t make the best choices and The Salesman shows that.
The Salesman is out 17th March