Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman got a lot of attention earlier this year when the film's cast and crew boycotted the Academy Awards in protest over US President Donald Trump's order which blocked entry of citizens from Iran and six other Muslim-majority countries to the U.S. This boycott also prompted a free screening of the film in Trafalgar Square in London in a sign of solidarity. Following this, The Salesman went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The cynic in me felt the film maybe won the award due to the stand made, but, having loved Farhadi's A Separation from 2011, I thought I'd better see for myself whether or not it deserved the accolade.
The Salesman sees married couple Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini), who are currently acting together in a production of 'Death of a Salesman', forced to move to a friend's apartment temporarily after their apartment block is badly damaged and deemed dangerous. In this new accommodation, Rana is assaulted after she mistakenly buzzes someone in, thinking they're her husband. She is deeply affected by the attack, but doesn't want to bring the police into it, afraid of the shame that will come upon her when asked to speak of the incident and testify about what happened. Emad is out for revenge though and investigates himself. He discovers the apartment's previous tenant was a prostitute and the attacker was likely one of her clients expecting his usual treatment. He also finds they left their pickup truck outside so locks it in the block's garage, in the hope of catching the owner when they return to pick it up. As Emad gets closer to finding the culprit, he drifts further away from his wife, who doesn't want the man found. She just wants Emad to be there for her and help her come to terms with what happened.
Like A Separation, this is another very successful fusion of family drama, underlying political commentary and subtle semi-thriller elements. Emad's obsession with catching Rana's attacker is hardly Taken, but the mystery is engrossing and provides a more gripping experience than most low key, intimate dramas. The tension is expertly handled by Farhadi, who uses deceptively simple techniques to put the audience on edge. The best example of this comes during the attack on Rana itself. We never see the violent struggle, but we see her buzz someone in without listening to who it is, then the camera holds on the door she leaves open longer than usually expected, allowing the audience to slowly realise something is wrong with the situation.
Like I said though, this isn't Taken, so don't go in expecting a thrill a minute tale of revenge. It's the way the incident fractures the central couple's relationship that forms the meat of the film. Emad seems to be a loving and dedicated husband who is forward thinking against Iran's strict censorship laws and restrictions on women's rights. However, when Rana truly needs him to help her and listen to her, he doesn't. He thinks he's doing the right thing, but doesn't give her a say. It's a powerful message about ingrained attitudes towards women that doesn't draw too much attention to itself like lesser Hollywood 'message' films.
That said, my only criticism of the film is that it does have a couple of slightly heavy handed moments. Some symbolism used is a little blatant, such as when Emad's search for the attacker brings him to a bakery we see the men working there, who are all potential suspects, roughly slapping dough around and feeding huge baguettes into wrappers. The finale also pushes things a fraction too far into melodrama. I don't want to discuss this issue too much though as it would spoil the film.
These slightly blunt moments are minimal though and only stand out as the rest of the film is so subtle and naturally portrayed. These are very minor niggles in an otherwise excellent film. It's another morally complex and gripping drama from Farhadi which quietly, but effectively comments on Iranian society, making for a richly rewarding film. As such, I can safely say the film deserved its Oscar.
The Salesman is out on 29th May on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Curzon Artificial Eye. I saw the DVD version and the picture and audio quality was decent.
There are two special features of note included, a short but decent making of documentary and an interview about the protest screening of the film in Trafalgar Square.