The Salesman by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi: Life as theatre and theatre as life

Dalia Said Mostafa, Sunday 2 Apr 2017

The Salesman recently won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film

Iraninan Oscar-winning film The Salesman, by Asghar Farhadi (Photo: Still from the film)

Those viewers who were following the Oscar Awards ceremony in February this year would probably have heard about the new film The Salesman by the well-known Iranian director Asghar Farhadi when the announcement came that it won the Best Foreign Language Film award.

Yet, Farhadi himself was not present at the ceremony, declaring his solidarity with all those affected by Trump’s travel ban against Iranians (amongst the citizens of six other nations). Instead, Farhadi entrusted one of his Iranian-American friends, Anousheh Ansari, to read his speech. He wrote:

" … I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight. My absence is out of respect for the people in my country and those of other six nations whom have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the US. Dividing the world into the “us” and “our enemies” categories creates fear, a deceitful justification for aggression and war … Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions."

Farhadi’s stance has been praised by many people in Iran and abroad, being perceived as a direct political message to the US administration. It has reinforced, once again, Iran’s defiance in the face of America’s policy of sanctions. In fact, Farhadi was not new to winning at the Oscars. His widely-acclaimed film A Separation also won the Best Foreign Language Film award, in 2012.

Indeed, the filmmaker has made a name for himself at various international film festivals in recent years, bringing to world viewers great stories from Iran that precisely “capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes” about Iranians.

His film About Elly won the Silver Bear award for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2009; A Separation won the Golden Bear for Best Film in 2011 at the same festival. At the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, Farhadi won the Best Screenplay award for The Salesman, and Shahab Hosseini won the Best Actor award for his role in the film.

Asghar Farhadi was born in 1972 in Iran. He studied theatre at university, then wrote plays and directed them. Later when he started working in cinema, he continued to be fascinated by the element of “drama” and has manipulated his scripts in a way to show the drama in the lives of his characters.

This makes his characters rather real and engaging for viewers. Farhadi has written all the scripts for his films; he is an auteur filmmaker par excellence.

Perhaps it is his latest film The Salesman (2016) that has relied more heavily on “drama,” both literally and metaphorically.

The film situates the events and characters within a theatre-like ambience, where theatre reflects on life, and the characters’ real life circumstances are immersed in drama.

In order to emphasise this idea (life as theatre and theatre as life), Farhadi integrates Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1949) and weaves it into the characters’ entangled interactions both on the stage as well as in their homes. It is such a fascinating technique which reconstructs Miller’s play within an Iranian cultural context.

Demise of 'American dream' 

Death of a Salesman highlights the demise of the “American dream” from the viewpoint of the main protagonist Willy Loman and his family — his loving wife Linda, and his two sons Biff and Happy.

They represent the aspirations of a middle class family in 1930s/1940s America, and their inability to fulfill their dreams of wealth, high social status, and prestige in the eyes of others. On the contrary, Willy’s two sons are stuck between their parents’ continuing pressure on them to gain high status in society, and their disillusion as a result of rapid economic changes where they see no opportunity to catch up.

The play portrays a deep sense of disappointment in a society that increasingly exerts pressure on its young people to become achievers, but without taking into consideration the social and intellectual troubles that might be hindering their progress.

The play ends with Willy committing suicide, as a symbolic act amid the collapse of his life dreams, and the powerful monologue/eulogy of his wife Linda whilst standing by his coffin:

"Willy, dear, I can’t cry. Why did you do it? I search and search and I search, and I can’t understand it, Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home … We’re free and clear … We’re free. … We’re free … We’re free …"

It is this cry or lament about “freedom” that best captures the irony of the Lomans’ trajectory. Although they live in a supposedly “free” country, they were never really free of economic or social constraints.

It is true that they are finally free of the mortgage instalments for their house, which Willy spent most of his life paying. Yet, the house will be empty since the two sons live away, and Linda ends up being alone. The play suggests that Willy’s life has passed in vain, possibly similar to so many other millions of ordinary citizens of his generation.

Farhadi recreates this last scene in his film where we see the two main protagonists, Emad and Rana, a married couple, playing the roles of Willy and Linda. At the start of the film, the couple seem happy to be together, and leading a fulfilling life. Emad works as a school teacher, and in the evening he and Rana join their group of friends to rehearse Miller’s play at the theatre.

The couple are loved and respected by everyone. However, in a sharp turnaround of events, Rana is violently assaulted by an intruder who enters their flat while she is alone in the shower.

She is deeply shaken by the experience, but refuses to report the crime to the police. Emad is shocked at Rana’s attitude, and decides to find the perpetrator by following the traces he had left before running away from the flat.

One of the most profound sequences takes place when Emad does find the culprit, and the sudden realisation that he is standing face to face with him in Emad’s old empty flat.

The intruder is an old man (approximately in his sixties) and he tries to evade Emad’s questions, not admitting to his crime. He is a salesman and went to the flat thinking that the woman who used to live there, before Emad and Rana moved in, was waiting for him.

At this point, the viewer begins to put the puzzle together as to why this man went into Emad’s flat in the first place.

The confrontation between the two men, while on their own, begins to resemble a theatre stage, where Emad comes to symbolise a judge. It is up to him now to pass a sentence on the culprit, and he does.

In an act of revenge, he tells the old man that he is going to reveal the truth to his wife, daughter, and son-in-law. The old man pleads with Emad to let him go, but the latter stubbornly refuses.

In fact, the viewer also becomes like a symbolic judge, because the filmmaker is subtly suggesting these questions: What would you do if you were in Emad’s position? Do you forgive the man who attacked your wife and caused her trauma? Or do you punish him?

Emad, however, is unable to forgive, so he brings Rana into the scene. When she sees the old man and the wretched state he is in, she too pleads with Emad to let him go. She says to her husband that if he carries on with his plan to tell the man’s family about what happened, she would leave him.

Towards the end of the film, the old man’s heart fails and he faints. Emad is now obliged to call the salesman’s family to come to his rescue. Thus, the wife, the daughter and the son-in-law also enter the scene (or the stage of life) to accompany the father away.

They seem to be a modest working class family who would never guess that the old man had a promiscuous relationship with another woman and possibly was the father of her son (as subtly implied in the film), and who also attacked another younger woman while she was alone in her flat.

The salesman’s portrait is in shambles, similar to Willy Loman’s portrait when it falls apart in the eyes of his son Biff, as the latter discovers an affair between his father and another woman, and how this particular incident devastates Biff and would strain his relationship with his father to the end of Willy’s life.

In Farhadi’s film, it is the story of the old Iranian salesman here and his trajectory that captivates our attention. As Emad’s punishment is unrelenting and forces the old man to confront himself and realise the extent of his cowardice, the salesman is unable to live to the moment and face his wife, who, similar to Linda Loman, thinks the world of her husband.

The old man dies at the end of the film, and in turn forces Emad and Rana to confront each other and each self. It is at this point that Farhadi’s trademark cinematic style is developed yet again in his new film: self-confrontation is the cruellest and most brutal of all.

Will Emad and Rana be able to fix their relationship and go back to their life together? We cannot be certain. In the last scene, Farhadi takes us back to the theatre room where each is sitting in front of a mirror and the make-up specialists are turning them into Willy and Linda Loman. We see each looking at themselves in the mirror, while lost in thought. The confrontation with the old salesman has shown each of them a side of the other that they did not observe before, and now his death will continue to haunt them.

In an interview with Farhadi after the release of his earlier film A Separation, he remarked:

"The bigger confrontation is the one an individual has with itself. When we talk about self-confrontations, we are speaking about moral issues rather than social issues."

Indeed, it is this issue of morality that defines all of Farhadi’s films. One common feature is when the main characters find themselves in a situation whereby they have to evaluate their position vis-à-vis the “other”, who can be from a different gender, social class, age group, or a different culture.

For Farhadi, morality is not dissociated from the “politics” of everyday living in Iran, where Iranians are forced to negotiate a space for everything: education, work, marriage, travel, art, etc. What I find unique about this filmmaker is how his stories always embrace universal themes and values about the complexity of class and gender relationships, despite being specific to Iran.

He is a filmmaker that transcends the national in order to reach out to world audiences and allows them to hear the voices and see the faces of ordinary Iranians.

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