By Richard von Busack
It’s a hallmark of the way Iranian films are made—immersive, circumspect, slippery—that they can start with circumstances so familiar to their core audience that they don’t seem to need much explanation. Take The Salesman, which begins with an apartment shaking itself to pieces. An earthquake? No—A man-made quake, caused by some careless bulldozer excavation nearby. It leaves the home of Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) with cracked windows, gas leaks and plaster. An American film would begin with a search for financial restitution; here, no one expects much justice. The couple transplants to a new, leaky apartment in a worse neighborhood, setting the stage for a more serious invasion of their home.
Emad is a film and drama teacher, staging a production of Death of a Salesman with the help of his wife in the role of Mrs. Loman. When Rana is home alone later, she’s attacked and beaten by someone while she’s in the shower.
The extent of the attack is up to us to gauge. Rana denies that she was raped (and you suspect, well, of course she would). They don’t call the police, because the cops are going to regard Rana as a loose woman who got what was coming to her. Moreover, the previous occupant of their new flat was a prostitute who was kicked out by the landlord, leaving all her stuff behind; pathetically, the crayon drawings her child scrawled are still on the walls. There is evidence, however. The assailant left behind his truck, keys, cell phone and a wad of money to pay for what he did.
It takes a lot of skill not to turn this into a rape-revenge movie. Director Asghar Farhadi’s (A Separation) The Salesman almost approaches that abysmal genre. Instead this first-rate director fascinates us with the way an evolved couple handles a mysterious attack, in a land where the man is generally supposed to be more shamed than the wife. Alidoosti brilliantly evokes the trauma she suffered, though it was Hosseini who got the Best Actor award at Cannes. The reveal of a highly pathetic culprit makes this the smartest kind of movie on the subject, up with Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden. Farhadi’s melodrama-free drama impresses with the bewildering hunt for truth amid chronic falseness.