The Salesman: Everything We Cannot See, by Scott Nye
As with About Elly, A Separation, and The Past (to conveniently name three of his films that have actually received American distribution), Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman is centrally concerned with the limitations of our own perception, and how we fill in those blank spaces with whatever narrative fits our general world view. It’s a bear of a theme, one that necessitates revisiting for how difficult it is to wrangle, and moreover one that benefits directly from telling different types of stories. Everyone fills those gaps differently, and seeing how so many different people deal with them can help us understand how the people in our lives might be misinterpreting our silences and absences.
Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are a husband-and-wife theatre team, putting on a production of – you guessed it – Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. If ever one work has had such firm hold over a single word, am I right? But I digress. They’ve also recently moved into a new, quickly-vacated apartment. The previous tenant (whom we never meet) did not have the best reputation with her neighbors for the number of men who visited, and hasn’t taken well to her eviction, as the evicted will do. Her stuff is still piled in one room, and she won’t come collect. There, one evening, while Emad is tending to some details at the theater, Rana accidently lets someone else in. We don’t see what happens next, but when Emad returns, there’s blood on the stairs and his wife is badly hurt.
Emad takes the quickest route – there was an intruder who assaulted Rana – and starts pursuing it. She tries to talk him down without quite saying why. The rifts begin stacking up. The man Emad pursues seems so harmless. But he was almost certainly there. And he has to hold some responsibility over what happened. Right?
We’ll never fully know, and Emad will never fully know, and much of the film is about the pure, blind rage that men experience when they can’t control some uncontrollable event in their life. It leads him to some irreconcilable actions, a transition Hosseini (who won the Best Actor award at Cannes last year) handles gracefully. Some of this is in the writing, as Farhadi makes clear the difficulty Emad has negotiating fidelity to Arthur Miller’s text amidst the requirements of Iranian censorship and the regular compromises one has to face in any artistic production, but it’s Hosseini who most holds our attention. He has to study each room, his wife’s every movement, for some signal as to how to proceed. Just to watch him think through things is suspenseful, unsure of what information he’s taking in or how he’ll process it.
This, too, is an extension of Farhadi’s subject. We can’t know what happened, and by extension, despite having full account of where he is and what he’s doing at any given time, we can’t fully know how Emad will receive this. Actions tell us much, but they don’t tell us everything. Farhadi is attuned to the spaces between those actions, and the mental gymnastics in which we engage to try to fill them. But the world can’t be narrativized; it is chaotic and unpredictable. Hell, the film starts with the couple’s old apartment building literally crumbling as they sleep in it. Any search for stability is fruitless.