Film Review: The Salesman, A Methodical Examination of the Human Condition

Photograph courtesy of Cohen Media Group
Photograph courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, The Salesman reveals to us something that is rarely portrayed in movies from Iran: a detailed look at the country’s rich appreciation of artistic work from nations of the Western world. In this case, the story is set against the backdrop of a troupe of actors preparing to put on a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” whose universal messages of broken dreams and dying spirits can still be appreciated in any culture, much like the films of writer-director Asghar Farhadi (Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly, The Past) seem to speak to all parts of the world, no more so than in his heartbreaking 2011 Oscar-winning family drama A Separation.

The Salesman concerns a married couple who are forced from their home when it literally begins to fall in around them because nearby construction has rattled their building, making it unsafe. Husband Emad (Shahab Hossieni) and wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are both actors in the play, and are rendered temporarily homeless until someone else working on the production alerts them to an empty apartment operated by a friend. After some confusion about the previous tenant’s property still in the space, the couple moves into the spacious unit, and all seems well.

Not long after the move, a series of confusing events occurs. Rana is about to jump into the shower when the buzzer rings. Assuming it is her husband, she buzzes him in, opens the front door a bit, and get into the shower. The action then jumps to the hospital where Rana is recovering from head wounds requiring stitches, and Emad is nearly driven crazy trying to pry from her exactly what happened. As she tells it, the person who she buzzed in was not her husband but an intruder that approached her in the shower, and glass was shattered in some type of struggle, injuring both Rana and the attacker. She seems intent on not involving the police, more out of shame at having to recount the story of another man seeing her. The question of a sexual assault never overtly comes up, but it lingers over a great deal of the film as one of many unanswered questions.

Photograph courtesy of Cohen Media Group
Photograph courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Was the intruder looking for the previous tenant, who it turns out was a prostitute? Did the man who set them up with the apartment know this and inadvertently put them in danger? Was there even an assault or just a terrible misunderstanding? Emad obsessively investigates the incident, and eventually comes up with the unlikeliest suspect, which further complicated the true nature of the incident. Nothing in a Farhadi film is ever simple. Misunderstandings, complex issues, and simple confusions are a part of each of his sophisticated works, and as a master storyteller he weaves various versions of the truth until something like a consensus rises to the surface, but almost never with that satisfying jolt we often get from American films. And all of the heightened emotion of the investigation takes its toll on both the marriage and the play.

While Rana seems to makes great strides in recovering from her attack and injuries, it’s Emad who seems more wounded in the longer term—his sense of manhood and pride utterly shattered. As he slowly, methodically unpacks the true nature of the injuries to his wife, the actual perpetrator seems less and less important to the incident than the long-reaching aftermath to all parties. Emad’s plan for revenge backfires to such a degree that it’s impossible to watch The Salesman as anything but a cautionary tale about allowing knee-jerk emotions to get the best of you. As an unfiltered drama, the film works to perfection; as a crime story, the pacing and flow are so unlike what Western audiences are used to, it might seems strange and oddly constructed. But as a pure piece of storytelling, The Salesman is phenomenal in its emotional content and examination of the human condition.

Even if you’ve not heard of The Salesman before this review, you probably have heard Farhadi’s name come up in the news in recent days. The gist of it is that he is protesting Trump’s executive order that many feel is discriminatory which prohibits travel from Iran and six other Muslim-majority countries until others from those countries are no longer banned. As such, Farhadi will not attending the Academy Awards later this month where he may quite possibly win for Best Foreign Film.

The Salesman opens today at the Regal Webster Place.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.