Cannes 2016: Asghar Farhadi's 'The Salesman' is a Solid Morality Tale
by Alex Billington
May 20, 2016
Anyone who isn't familiar with this filmmaker yet needs to start watching his films. Asghar Farhadi is an Iranian filmmaker with quite a few films on his filmography already, including most recently A Separation (which won the Academy Award in 2011) and The Past. Farhadi returns to the Cannes Film Festival with his latest film, titled The Salesman (originally titled Forushande), and while it doesn't top A Separation it's a very solid morality tale that deals with the issue of revenge and fear. The first film that comes to mind that handles this topic similarly is The Revenant, another story of revenge where the lesson is that revenge is an empty pursuit that doesn't provide satisfaction, only more pain or suffering. A lesson learned the hard way.
The film is framed around a play being put on in Iran, a production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. The opening shots show them positioning lights and putting together set pieces on the stage. As a former lighting designer in my early years, I was almost giddy during this opening - the way he shot these scenes is so beautiful and so perfect. And the set itself is awesome. The film often cuts back to the set with various characters walking through various places, as they give a performance every night. This is simply one of the many layers of The Salesman, as the film is actually about a couple, played by Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini, whose relationship is tested when they're suddenly forced to move to a new apartment.
After starting on the stage, the actual opening of the film is the kind that instantly draws you in and keeps you captivated. They're in their original apartment when all of a sudden the entire building begins rumbling, and other residents start fleeing yelling that "it's going to collapse!" It turns out to be nearby construction causing the problem, but the real issues begin when their friend at the theater offers them a new apartment to move into. The previous tenant has left most of her stuff in there, and won't come to pick it up. The big turn in the plot comes when the woman is assaulted by a stranger who didn't realize the other person hadn't moved out yet. It's a complex, nuanced film with an intricate script that plays out in a very engrossing way.
The film goes on to play with various themes of morality and revenge, as they attempt to figure out who the person was that assaulted her. If they find him, what will they do with him? Embarrass him, teach him a lesson? In the meantime, she struggles to get back on her feet as she feels unsafe in the new apartment and always needs someone around. By the time we reach the conclusion, I was hoping Farhadi would've pushed even deeper, throwing in more twists and more complexity. However, it ends on a depressing note about how seeking revenge usually damages the one seeking more than the one being sought. Beyond that, there's not much else but it's still a riveting film - practically a mystery that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
This minor bit of criticism isn't to say it's not a very good film, it's not as great as what Farhadi has made in the past. The Salesman is a thoroughly engaging morality tale that proves once again just how talented of a storyteller/filmmaker Asghar Farhadi is. From the cinematography and lighting, to the production design, to the back and forth intelligent dialogue, to the screenwriting that reveals more as you follow along, it's all so impressive. There's so many layers to this film, with questions to ask yourself about every situation and whether you would act/react the same way. The two main performances by Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini are outstanding, and it moves at a steady pace that is never tiresome. It's worthy of appreciation.
Alex's Cannes 2016 Rating: 8 out of 10
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