“Culture clash” is an over-familiar trope of the movies, having fun with the differences between peoples. Culture connection is a rarer bird, showing how the timeless dramas and comedies of literature speak universal truths.
“The Salesman,” Iran’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, is a revealing culture-connection drama that gives the themes of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” a Persian twist. American audiences can appreciate it both for the transference of Miller’s big ideas to a Tehran setting, and the surprisingly candid look at life in the arts in the Islamic Republic today.
Emad (Shahab Hosseini) is a high school teacher by day, a member of an acting ensemble by night. His students — all boys — are a trial, pranksters straining under the weight of their circumscribed education and a society that isn’t keen on letting teenagers be teenagers. We get a hint of the paranoid culture that they all live in on an uncomfortable shared taxi ride where the mere whiff of a woman’s accusation chills teacher and one of his students.
In any event, it’s a job and little more to Emad.
But at night, he, his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are tackling a controversial American masterpiece. Emad is playing Willy Loman, American angst and shame at their 1950s peak, and Rana is Willy’s long-suffering but devoted wife Linda.
Whatever else Arthur Miller intended “Death of a Salesman” to be, Emad and Rana’s troupe must take to a stage playing up the lurid — city lights peppered with “Bar” and “Casino” and “Bowling Alley” signs. American decadence on display.
Offstage, Emad and Rana move into a new apartment run by their jack-of-many-trades castmate Babak (Babak Karimi). In the first echo of life imitating art, Babak is cagey about who the previous tenant was.
“The lady had…too many visitors.”
When Rana is assaulted in the shower, their relationship turns icy and quietly accusatory, just as in the play. Tenderness between them disappears. Endless reassurances that “nothing serious happened” from Rana and the neighbors — she was hospitalized, concussed and cut — and Rana’s reluctance to involve the police broadcast that this is a culture and a country ill-equipped to deal with anything sexual.
And Emad, frustrated and powerless, wants answers and revenge. What is Babak holding out, was the perpetrator a client and what clues did he leave behind?
Writer-director Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) beautifully obscures the connections between play and real life, and works fear and mistrust into this world with subtlety and care. A prank in the classroom could be a teacher’s undoing, nobody trusts or expects anything helpful out of the ever-absent police. There is no social structure for dealing with Rana’s trauma — either medical, religious or governmental.
The picture takes a fascinating but very conventional turn as Emad sets out to solve the crime and get justice on his own. And the play within the movie is given short shrift, with only the tart “Willy” cheated with (Mina Sadati) registering, mainly because the men in the cast cannot get past the character’s sexual nature.
Still, “The Salesman” makes for a gripping drama of a relationship in crisis, and the powerlessness of men, across borders and through generations, to right the great wrongs of their lives, to not disappoint the women who lean on them.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements and a brief bloody image
Credits:Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi . An Amazon Studios release.
Running time: 2:05