**** (out of five)
Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi just won the Foreign Language Feature Film Oscar for The Salesman, another of his particular brand of contemporary social thrillers – a term of my own devising for his specific style. His best film, A Separation, won the same award five years ago. Together with The Past (2013) and About Elly (2009), the four films constitute a staggeringly exciting recent body of work. He is unquestionably one of the finest, most dynamic, most urgent auteurs working in modern cinema.
All four of these films take place immediately. Things are happening, now, with no time to lose, and the stakes are high. Often told over two or three days, with a smallish cast (he has an ensemble of actors who re-appear throughout the quartet), the films are contemporary dramas but with the effect of thrillers: they are all highly suspenseful, tense and grippingly immersive. There is always mystery and misdirection; there are plentiful secrets and lies. And there are the cultural, political and religious constraints of contemporary Iran, pressing down on these characters and, for those of us non-Iranians, providing another layer of relative ambiguous tension.
The characters themselves share, across the four films, specific qualities: they are urbane (from Tehran overwhelmingly), educated, smart, young (I would suggest most are around 30, as an aggregate) and for the most part very attractive. This is perhaps the one level of artificiality in his films, but then, it occurred to me – perhaps in Iran, to be an actor one must be attractive? It certainly helps in countries with far bigger film industries.
The subject of being an actor in Tehran is directly addressed in The Salesman, which stars Shahab Hosseini (A Separation and About Elly) and Taraneh Alidoosti (Elly in About Elly) as Emad and Rana Etesami, who are playing Willy and Linda Loman in what appears to be a professionally-mounted production of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman in Tehran. At the start of the film, while they’re in the final week or so of rehearsals, their apartment building suffers a semi-collapse, and they are forced to move, quickly and without the luxury of time to look around, into the first apartment they can grab, which happens to have a sordid history. That history cuts into their lives in a particular way, and, once it does, the film’s “thriller” aspects kick up a gear, and, as always with films by Farhadi, choices of monumental emotional and moral substance need to be made.
The stunningly handsome Hosseini (he reminds me of Colin Farrell, but better looking) won Best Actor at this year’s Cannes for his work here and he deserved it mightily, even if his volatile black hair is a little too awesome during the film’s gripping, real-time third act. Alidoosti, who necessarily held her cards as close as one can to one’s chest in About Elly, gets to be far freer with her emotions here, even if her character Rana can only let them out when she’s on stage as Linda Loman. The Death Of A Salesman scenes are like lightening in a bottle, and there is no doubt that the Etesamis are meant to be read as fantastic stage actors. This is less of an ensemble than Farhadi’s other Big Three, but the work of all the supporting cast is excellent. Farhadi demands realism and his actors inevitably deliver; there’s nary a false note in any of the performances in any of his films, even from the children, who feature less here than in the previous work.
Despite some story elements that push it even further than A Separation and The Past into the thriller realm, The Salesman is more contemplative and in many ways smaller, more contained. It’s probably most evocative of About Elly, even though it’s obviously a more mature work about more mature people with, well, more mature baggage. Of his four films, I rank it number three, but it still towers above eighty-eight percent of the films that reach our silver screens. Don’t miss it, and if you haven’t seen his other films, correct that error now.