Revenge is anything but sweet in the Oscar-winning (in the foreign language category) Iranian film “The Salesman.”
Writer/director Asghar Farhadi makes movies (“A Separation,” “The Past”) without the villains that usually fuel Hollywood melodrama. He doesn’t need villains; there are enough dark corners in even his most virtuous characters to keep us off guard and guessing.
His protagonists here are a husband and wife, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who perform in amateur theater. Their current effort is Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” with Emad as Willy Loman and Rana as his wife, Linda.
The film opens with what passes for an action sequence in a Farhadi film. In the dead of night Emad, Rana and other residents of their apartment complex are awakened and told to evacuate. Heavy construction next door has undermined their building, cracking windows and sending spiderweb fissures spreading across the walls.
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Scrambling to find temporary housing, the pair end up in a nearby vacant apartment. The previous tenant, they learn, was a woman with many male friends — in other words, a prostitute. (The world’s oldest profession endures even in puritanical Iran.)
One night, Emad returns from running an errand to learn that Rana has been attacked in the shower and neighbors have taken her to the hospital.
Emad and Rana agree they won’t go to the cops. She didn’t see her assailant’s face. Besides, the whole experience is too humiliating to relive before strangers.
The emotional toll of the incident, though, is profound. Rana is weepy and fearful, and Emad is frustrated and maddened by his inability to say or do the right thing: “At night I can’t come near. In the day it’s ‘Don’t go!’ ”
Naturally enough, his thoughts turn to revenge against Rana’s attacker. Emad figures the culprit could have been one of the prostitute’s clients and launches his own investigation.
But Farhadi’s screenplay is less interested in locating the bad guy than in probing the psyche of Emad, a good guy now up to his neck in dismaying moral conundrums.
As is invariably the case with this director’s films, “The Salesman” is a slow go. Farhadi eschews anything that smacks of thriller pacing, and his film has a stripped-down feel (no musical score, lots of cramped interiors). There’s no humor, at least not to Western observers (a few lines of dialogue about the religious censorship of Miller’s play will no doubt have Iranian audiences grimly chuckling).
Moreover, an attempt to draw parallels between Emad and Rana and the characters they are portraying in “Death of a Salesman” relies on the audience’s knowledge of Miller’s great play. Nobody ever got rich overestimating the literacy of the moviegoing public.
But despite a draggy middle section, the film comes fiercely to life in the third act, with Emad’s discoveries. How far would any of us go to satisfy our bruised pride? Farhadi takes us right up to the very edge.
(At the Glenwood Arts, Tivoli.)
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated PG-13. Time: 2:05.