“For once it looks like we’re in luck”
There’s this notion that tragedy won’t happen to us. It’s for people who don’t live their lives correctly—some karmic retribution paying for mistakes made along the way. We like to believe we’re different whether such a belief is deserved or not. So when something does occur, only a seething anger results. Anger at your hard work to stay moral and good proving to be for naught; anger about thoughts of revenge seeming impossible considering acting upon them would simply lower you onto the level of the villain that’s upturned your life; and anger that taking action is probably worth the descent because nobody should be allowed to go unpunished. Our sanctimonious ideas of moral superiority can be exposed as lies so quickly. And they often are.
The Etesamis (Shahab Hosseini‘s Emad and Taraneh Alidoosti‘s Rana) are performing an Iranian adaptation of Arthur Miller‘s “Death of a Salesman” in Asghar Farhadi‘s latest film فروشنده [Forushande] [The Salesman]. They’re a loving couple with friends, fans, and joy. But they’re stuck in a city ravaged by failing infrastructure and constant blunders risking their wellbeing. If their own “American Dream”—removed from Willy and Linda Loman’s on stage—were to be defined, it would prove to be a desire for happiness untouched by problems outside their control. They do everything right and yet we meet them on the cusp on homelessness after idiocy led a construction company to dig close enough to their apartment building to make collapse possible. Lucky for them, however, an actor friend offers help.
But is it luck or merely one more act outside their control? At what point are we held responsible for our actions: our naiveté when it comes to blindly trusting a world that has been letting people down since the dawn of time? Nothing is perfect or idyllic; everything comes at a cost. You could say that the years of joy, compassion, and camaraderie at their old apartment cost them their vigilance. You could say that their being surrounded by like-minds filled with empathy cost them their pragmatic cynicism. The dream is for complacency to set in and be sustained because the harmony you have experienced is mirrored in those surrounding you. We pray for a utopia removed of sin and sometimes we delude ourselves into believing it’s arrived.
How we lived barely two decades ago with kids playing in the street and doors left unlocked could be described as blissful ignorance. Once technology advanced and the media shifted to a 24-hour cycle, the world’s horrors became real. Populations grew, crime grew, and we saw everything. Your small town may have had one murder in the past year, but you witnessed hundreds on TV throughout the state, thousands throughout the country, and even more internationally with constant threat escalations until a sense of paranoia formed amongst citizens afraid to leave their homes. On one hand we are more knowledgeable than ever, but prejudice and hate are at all time highs on the other. Tragedy no longer occurs far away—it’s right outside our door.
We yearn to go back, though. Enough to latch onto the hope happiness and comfort provide. We accept favors and forget to ask questions because we believe friends have our best interests in mind. But they care about the best interests of other friends too. So while Babak (Babak Karimi) offering the Etesamis an apartment is half a selfless act, the details he leaves out to protect someone else risks tearing them apart. This home is vouched for and they accordingly treat it as a safe place. Rana expects Emad home so she opens the door when the buzzer is rung before entering the shower. Would she have done that knowing the previous tenant was a suspected prostitute with anonymous gentleman callers ignorant to the fact she moved?
Farhadi uses this hypothetical to infer upon the aftermath of an attack. Rana is so embarrassed by her part in unwittingly letting her intruder in that she doesn’t want the police to blame her and do nothing. Emad wants to respect her wishes, but the situation isn’t one where he can sit back and pretend it didn’t occur. His wife is shaken to the core, his neighbors have inquired about her wellbeing to their friends, and now the secret is out to the point where this upstanding Iranian must worry about public perception. And to make matters worse, the assailant left his phone, keys, and pick-up truck to ignite Emad’s quest for retribution. If he can’t go to the police, he can take things into his own hands.
Their dealings with the incident are juxtaposed against their impending performance, Farhadi carefully tempering events from their life with relevant scenes from the play. Rana wants to move because she cannot go into the bathroom alone. Emad wants to keep appearances up despite his emotional volatility permeating his teaching and acting. Assumptions that the previous tenant felt slighted makes it seem like the attack was premeditated. The truck connects to a young man (Mojtaba Pirzadeh‘s Majid) and Emad begins to hatch a plan for psychological vengeance. But all the while his vendetta closes him off from Rana at a time when she desperately needs his support. This heinous crime—whose severity is only ever alluded to—has wedged them apart when it should have brought them closer together.
We watch as a strong woman is transformed into a shell of worry and fear while a temperate, just man approaches the edge of civility. She retreats, each attempt to claw out leading to a revelation dropping her farther down. He lashes out at students, his suspect’s ailing father (Farid Sajjadi Hosseini‘s Naser), and his wife due to helplessness. Each move forward brings suspense because we’re unsure how far Emad will go and whether Rana will let him. Farhadi once again reveals why he’s a master at relationship drama by carefully throwing a wrench into an already complex situation to watch the characters fall apart. The crime itself—while unforgivable—is even surrounded by certain details able to give the audience pause as to his punishment’s severity.
Can private shame be enough or does it have to go public? The Etesamis’ utopia has been ripped apart and they must reconcile hearts and minds to try and put it back together again. Hosseini is fantastic, his pain stewing beneath the surface until the opportunity to hit back proves much different than he had imagined it. He’s behind the eight ball by no force other than his own, the responsibilities he burdens himself proving heavier than necessary similar to Willy Loman. But for me the true star is Alidoosti and her nuanced terror allowing silent looks to speak volumes. Her Rana is the victim, not Emad. She’s the one who’s been scarred and therefore the one who knows retribution born from anger will leave another just as deep.