There is no greater chronicler of the minute but manifold disappointments and disillusionments of which irreparable rifts in relationships are made than Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. His last four films — “Fireworks Wednesday,” “About Elly,” “A Separation” and “The Past” — have all examined compromised coupledom in some way. And all have proven Farhadi’s astonishing capacity to trace the ramifications of the incredibly ordinary — an unanswered door, a well-meaning white lie, a forgotten phone — as they unspool with tick-tock clockwork logic toward extraordinary climaxes, that feel both inevitable and unexpected. His new film, “The Salesman,” is entirely in that mold, though it’s less about a separation than a sundering, about a splinter that opens up a chasm in a marriage, that in turn exposes a gulf in Iranian society. But though it is dense in allusion and rich in texture, there are choices he makes that ultimately pull “The Salesman” back from the greatness, and the engulfing universality of his best work. It is as compelling as anything Farhadi has ever made, but it’s also somehow smaller.
The splinter in question here is a thoughtlessly buzzed intercom and a door left informally ajar. Emad and his wife Rana (Farhadi regulars Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti) are forced to move when, in an extraordinary opening sequence, their apartment block has its foundations undermined by construction next door and begins to give way, spontaneously sprouting dramatic cracks across walls and up stairwells. Emad is a teacher by day, well-liked by his students, and an actor by night, appearing alongside Rana in a local adaptation of “Death of a Salesman.” Babak (Babak Karimi), a fellow member of the theatrical troupe, offers them an apartment of his that has just been vacated by the last tenant. Irritated by a roomful of personal belongings that haven’t yet been collected, Emad and Rana move in anyway, and soon after, while preparing for a shower and expecting Emad home, Rana hears the intercom ring. She buzzes the building gate without checking, and opens the apartment door, before getting into the shower. But it isn’t Emad. The next time he sees Rana she is dazed and traumatized, getting stitches for a head wound in the hospital.
Exactly what went on in the bathroom after the stranger let himself in, Farhadi leaves deliberately woolly, and Rana’s account of what occurred is slightly confused. Perhaps understandably, but then again, perhaps she is downplaying the gravity of the violation, or exaggerating it? Leaving the incident unclear is a choice made for dramatic stakes, leaving the audience no longer fully certain of Rana’s reliability, but after a very even-handed opening in which the relative parity of their relationship is demonstrated, the drift into Emad’s perspective to the exclusion of hers feels ever so slightly jarring. It leads to some rather generic turns as Emad determines to find the culprit, while the Rana struggles to overcome the fearfulness she feels when alone in the apartment. Throughout it all, the play continues its run — the show must go on — and the parallels between the nightly performances, and the film’s storyline, including two separate scenes in which wives beg their husbands not to go to work just like in Arthur Miller‘s opus, come into and out of focus.
The theatrical conceit adds breadth to the film’s interpretation, and Farhadi is careful to mirror the imagery between the stage set and the film’s interiors to make those parallels clear. Indeed, the whole final third takes place back at Emad and Rana’s old crumbling apartment, where the unfurnished, evacuated rooms have the look of a pared-back set, with the electric circuit box they’re forever flicking at recalling the theater’s lighting desk. But beyond even that, the very idea of public performance, especially by women, in a culture as repressive as Iran’s, in which the threat of public humiliation (which is used several times in the film) is more devastating than the threat of violence or prosecution, is itself a knotty issue. It’s no wonder the framed poster left with the last of their stuff in the old apartment is for “Skammen” — the Swedish name for Ingmar Bergman‘s “Shame.”
But even beyond the themes of shame and humiliation, this is a film about the mistrust and fear of women by men, especially the dangerous mystery of their sexual allure (“I was tempted” is a passive-voice explanation offered by one man to another in regards to his transgression against a woman). And there is no doubt that Farhadi is making a pointed comment on the grotesque marginalization of Rana’s wishes pertaining to a crime that was committed against her, that somehow becomes the property of her husband. The thing is, in making this point, Farhadi’s film is itself guilty of sidelining Rana (especially a shame because, as played by Alidoosti, she is one of the most brilliantly watchable of Farhadi’s female leads) and it proves beyond even Farhadi’s powers to fully critique the masculine point of view from within that perspective. Add to that a reliance on the specificity of modern Iranian social and cultural attitudes, especially when it comes to the arcane rules governing the propriety of women, and the lessons of “The Salesman” feel a little more remote than the blazing immediacy of his best work.
But there is still intense pleasure to be had simply experiencing Farhadi’s fleet-footed, thrilling storytelling, and in a more convincing and consistent manner than with the disappointing “The Past.” Even when the story is getting more spiderweb-complex, he has an uncanny ability to root the dramatics in reality with nothing more than the popping of a toaster or the chinking of a broken window. In the film’s best scene, a dinner goes from briefly joyful to fatally compromised in an utterly believable and strangely affecting series of offhand remarks and exchanged glances. It’s a moment that reminds us of the peerless Farhadi of “A Separation” and “About Elly”: the intensely humanist observer of the kind of universally relatable heartbreak that happens one night over a bowl of spaghetti, and never ends. [B/B+]