"Attention must be paid." That line from Arthur Miller's 1949 play Death of a Salesman is spoken about Willy Loman, a man who laments having gone "unnoticed" by the world. It's a work so thoroughly American in its sensibilities that the sight of it being staged in present-day Tehran is initially disorienting.
And that's exactly as Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi would have it. Disorientation is his stock in trade, as he's previously demonstrated in subtly observed domestic dramas such as A Separation (2011) and The Past (2013). The actors who play Willy and Linda Loman in the Farsi production are themselves husband and wife. Before the first act has run its course, a violent event has left their marriage in need of serious attention.
Farhadi regular Shahab Hosseini plays Emad Etesami, a teacher by day and amateur thespian by night. Taraneh Alidoosti is his wife, Rana. As The Salesman opens, the filmmaker indulges in some not-terribly-subtle symbolism. Emad and Rana are forced to evacuate their apartment as bulldozing near the building's foundation threatens it with collapse. Windows snap spontaneously. A jagged crack slices the wall above the couple's bed. The Paranormal Activity franchise briefly crosses your mind.
A friend just happens to own a building with a vacancy, and the two waste no time in moving in. The previous tenant, it turns out, was "a woman of many acquaintances" who received visitors day and night; she has left possessions in a locked room and is unreachable. It's an unusual touch. One of the film's most significant characters never appears on screen.
The movie has a "before and after" structure. In early scenes, Emad is shown joking with his teenage students. Then the film's pivotal event occurs: Rana buzzes someone into the apartment, assuming it's her husband but neglecting to ask, and steps into the shower. The picture's most effective sequence is a shot of the door that she's unlocked opening in slow motion, almost menacingly. The works of Michael Haneke briefly cross your mind.
The rest of the movie offers a study of the ways cracks and fissures in a relationship can be exacerbated by experiences as traumatic as home invasion and personal violation. To be honest, there's not much news here. Initially, the couple is portrayed as enlightened artists contending with an oppressive social order; later, we watch as Emad grows progressively more patriarchal. He becomes humorless with his students and increasingly authoritative and dismissive toward Rana. Eventually, a simmering shame reaches its boiling point, leading him to seek revenge — whereupon Charles Bronson's oeuvre briefly crosses your mind.
What does it say about the winner of this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that its climactic 30 minutes wrestle with essentially the same moral questions that were raised by the 2013 thriller Prisoners? That film didn't win major awards. So why the Oscar here, in a field that included the better-reviewed Toni Erdmann (which has a Metacritic score of 93 compared with The Salesman's 86)? As with so many baffling developments these days, all roads lead to President Donald Trump.
Farhadi made headlines in January when he announced he'd boycott the Oscars in protest of the president's Muslim ban. It's safe to say the Academy's membership is overwhelmingly left-leaning. Is it far-fetched to speculate that many members gave Farhadi their vote as a gesture of anti-Trump solidarity? The Salesman is a serviceable work, but take away the brouhaha. and I seriously doubt anywhere near as much attention would be paid.