THE SALESMAN (Forushande) C+
Iran France (125) 2016 d: Asghar Farhadi Official site [UK]
I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.
—Linda Loman from Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, 1949
The failed American Dream — Iranian style, with writer/director Farhadi appropriating the Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman into Iranian society, becoming a chronicle of the Iranian middle class, with negligible results. While there are those that continually overpraise Farhadi’s expertise at either writing, directing, or both, but don’t expect that here, as this is easily the least interesting and most blatantly obvious of his films, where the mere act of combining American and Iranian cultural attributes into a single work seems to win him plenty of acclaim, given kudos for trying, but films are not peace negotiations to be viewed at the United Nations, they are instead expressions of the human soul, where this effort is lackluster and often infuriating, reminiscent of Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s failed attempt to make a Hollywood film in Prisoners (2013), as both descend into a dark place of male dominance and overreaction. Winner of two awards at Cannes, the Best Screenplay for Farhadi and Best Actor prize for Shahab Hosseini, the film continues his legacy for making socially relevant films, FIREWORKS WEDNESDAY (2006), A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) (2011), The Past (Le Passé) 2013), and 2015 Top Ten List #10 About Elly (Darbareye Elly), a film that was actually completed in 2009 but not released until six years later, all made within a context of other Iranian directors facing police arrest, the likes of which include Jafar Panahi, who remains under a 6-year house arrest, as well as a 20-year ban on making or directing any movies, writing screenplays, giving any form of interview with Iranian or foreign media, as well as leaving the country except for Hajj holy pilgrimages to Mecca, Mohammad Rasoulof, currently out on bail awaiting a one-year sentence, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and recently deceased Abbas Kiarostami on self-imposed exiles from Iran due to the repressive nature of the government, while artist-activist Atena Farghadani was sentenced to a 12-year prison sentence for posting a cartoon on her Facebook page, with legislators depicted with animal heads, in protest of legislation to restrict birth-control and make divorce more difficult in her country, and the nation’s most renowned artist, sculptor Parviz Tanavoli, had his passport revoked recently the day before he was scheduled to speak to a British Museum — all of which suggests Farhadi walks a fine line.
While many felt The Past (Le Passé) was a misstep, or among his weakest efforts, yet that is a film challenged by the brilliance of Bérénice Bejo, who is arguably his most fiercely independent character in any of his films, exhibiting a combative nature that is nearly non-existent in Iranian films, as women remain firmly under the patriarchal boot of male oppression. Unfortunately, Farhadi writes a one-sided, male-friendly script that undermines her character throughout, limiting the options available to her. To a large extent, that same problem reoccurs here in another male-dominated film featuring more submissive female characters. This is beginning to be a glaring omission in Farhadi’s works, where there is little evidence to suggest this is even a concern to him. By appropriating a Pulitzer Prize-winning American play that is considered a milestone in American theater, largely due to the profound depths of the tragedy, Farhadi is suggesting a failed patriarchal system is a common attribute of both American and Iranian societies, yet our histories and the way each nation treats women today is substantially different, as the 1949 play was written to represent a postwar society that was coming to terms with the promise of new ideals, where financial success was viewed as the measure of a successful life, at the expense of all other interests, like love, family, knowledge, community, and personal fulfillment, something many overlooked in the 1950’s, which was considered an era of prosperity in America, yet not necessarily one of happiness, as evidenced by Richard Yates’ excruciatingly personal 1961 novel Revolutionary Road (made into a 2008 film by Sam Mendes) depicting a shattered portrait of the idealized 50’s male-centric marriage, one that disintegrated into marital dysfunction as it denied aspirations for women. The 60’s ushered in new hopes and dreams, such as equal opportunities for women, calls for an end to racial discrimination, poverty, and the war in Vietnam, while advocating greater social justice in an attempt to create a more equal society. All this is part of the legacy of the play, as it represents a last gasp of the American Dream that continually needs to be resuscitated and fought for with each successive generation. The central question to be asked is whether Farhadi is the man to carry this humanist torch in Iran, which is an Islamic society, or other places around the world under their reach. The sad truth happens to be no, at least so far, based on the evidence provided, as the women in Farhadi’s films continue to be portrayed as if we’re still living in the 1950’s.
Like Roman Polanski’s most recent film Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure) (2013), this one also begins and ends on an empty stage, coming to life with a theatrical performance of Miller’s play, quickly blending real life into the lives of the fictional characters seen onstage, a device that frames the story, where we enter the stormy marriage of the two leads in the play, Willy Loman and his wife Linda, played by Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana, Taraneh Alidoosti, who played Elly in 2015 Top Ten List #10 About Elly (Darbareye Elly). Opening in a state of flux, with dizzying handheld camera shots, we are introduced to the couple as people in their building are being warned the building is about to fall, where all residents must immediately evacuate, as it is believed to be an earthquake, though the damage is actually caused by a building construction bulldozer that is destabilizing the foundation. Nonetheless, it sets an ominous tone that the comfort of one’s home may be disrupted at any time by external events. Emad is a high school literature teacher who promises to bring his class to a performance of the play, which they’ve never heard of, but we see the cast and crew rehearse in the evenings, where already government censors are demanding cuts in the play. When one of the cast members discovers the lead couple are homeless and in need of an apartment, Babak (Babak Karimi) offers them an empty apartment in a building he owns in Tehran, allowing them to move in immediately. Strangely, the previous tenant has left behind personal belongings in a locked room, which initially irritates Rana, as they need the space, while Emad takes a calmer approach, allowing events to naturally unfold. A catastrophic event triggers the story, as Rana opens the door from the buzz of an intercom, believing it is her husband, while returning to the bathroom to shower, but is instead viciously attacked, happening entirely offscreen, where we see traces of bloody footprints, shattered glass in the bathroom, while Rana has been taken to the hospital, apparently helped by neighbors. The details of this event remain obscure, as Rana is herself confused by what happened and doesn’t want to talk about it, obviously emotionally shattered and traumatized by the experience, where she’s afraid to use the shower or be left alone in the building. Emad, on the other hand, is more outraged by his own increasing suspicions, not to mention the dishonor and family embarrassment, where he’s more concerned about exacting revenge than the fragile state of his wife, who attempts to return to the stage, but freezes in a scene where the character of Willy Loman is particularly brutal to her, one of the more affecting scenes in the film.
Strangely, Rana disappears from view, much as she did in 2015 Top Ten List #10 About Elly (Darbareye Elly), as she is removed from the cast, unfortunately spending most of her time all alone, where Emad seems to lose patience with having to deal with her continual fears and anxieties, perhaps viewing her as “damaged goods.” The entire thrust of the film shifts into Emad’s shadowy state of mind, as we observe the unraveling of a man, far from the sympathetic, fairly level-headed guy seen in the beginning, as he ventures into vigilante territory, losing sight of his own teachings and beliefs, where he drifts into a darkened interior state. Becoming obsessed with following clues of her attacker, never reporting any of this to the authorities, as Rana doesn’t wish to relive this experience over and over again, Emad goes on a personal one-man crusade, as he scours the neighborhoods in search of the culprit, knowing little about their personal identity, but they did leave traces behind. Mirroring this is an event that takes place in his classroom, where he falls asleep while screening a movie about a man who strangely turns into a cow, Dariush Mehrjui’s THE COW (1969), arguably the first film of the Iranian New Wave, where his students show no interest whatsoever in the film, but are fascinated by their sleeping teacher, taking pictures on their smartphones in a festive party atmosphere. When he awakes, somewhat embarrassed and humiliated, he angrily attempts to shift the blame to one of the students, appropriating his phone, inspecting the contents, offering a stern moral rebuke about his behavior that needs to be shared with his father, only to learn his father died years earlier. This wild goose chase of an impromptu classroom investigation turns disastrous, showing a mean streak in Emad, one who has lost faith in his own principles and is instead crudely striking out blindly at others in the dark. In much the same manner, he tracks down the home invader, becoming obsessed with exacting justice, even as his wife objects, claiming this is more than she can handle, as she no longer recognizes her husband anymore. While previous works also felt implausible and overly contrived, but unlike others, this film lacks an emotional connection to the blind irrationality of the husband, who goes off the deep end in his intent to punish the perpetrator. It’s a sad exhibition of an overdetermined finale, where Emad himself grows more morally repugnant, forgetting his connection to his wife, or anyone else, where his own personal humiliation is the key to revenge, as the man who caused it must suffer even more, driving the point into the ground, becoming a mad dog, where he literally becomes the “damaged goods.” While the final events are disturbing, they are all too predictable, like a robot on auto pilot, exerting no reflection, where the sins of the self-righteous allow their own pride to blind them to the consequences. Unlike Willy Loman, who made a living genuinely convincing people to buy things they didn’t really need, Emad assumes the role of a salesman, but by the end has nothing left to sell.