Friday 17 March 2017

Broken homes: "The Salesman"

Last year's Under the Shadow - the much-admired Iranian chiller that drew comparisons to the work of director Asghar Farhadi (About Elly, A Separation) - made extraordinary dramatic play out of the domestic upheaval caused by the bombs that fell during the Iran-Iraq conflict of the early 1980s. Farhadi's new film The Salesman unfolds in latter-day Iran, but it joins its central characters - teacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), bedrocks of a local theatre group - in more or less the same state of disarray, having to evacuate an apartment block threatening to collapse under pressure from what a quick peek out of the window mid-chaos reveals as nearby construction work. Dig a little too close to home, and who knows what might start to happen? Normal life in Farhadi-land has always been a matter of building castles upon sand: the foundations are lousy, the cracks beginning to show. By the end credits here, all will again be reduced to dust.

Although The Salesman looks to be inhabiting perilously similar terrain to A Separation, it soon expands to function on some additional meta level - for the couple, it transpires, are currently performing as Willy and Linda Loman in Miller's Death of a Salesman. They will spend the rehearsal and performance period in altogether hastily co-opted digs: a flat forcibly appropriated by the drama group's leader when its previous tenant, a lady of reported ill-repute, was out one afternoon - leaving the bulk of her possessions to be dumped in the rain in a bluntly immediate gesture of gentrification. So there are multiple houses under threat here, and those boundaries separating art from life, the public from the private, becomes more porous yet when hubby pops out for some shopping one evening, and Rana is attacked by an intruder believed to be one of the former tenant's clients. (A structural ellipsis leaves us wondering whether or not she might have been raped.)

What we subsequently witness, played out in the finely honed naturalism that has become the Farhadi trademark, is a gradual, increasingly alarming process of moral erosion. Emad's response to the attack is to push hard - too hard - for retribution, seizing upon any clues scattered around the property to stage his own ad hoc investigation, his bristling brusqueness coming to alienate those friends and colleagues he blames for the incident, while further isolating the wife who now more than ever needs some TLC, not an iron fist. Although the play-within-the-film sequences suggests Emad actually becomes a better actor for this incident - in that his Willy now truly seems to know what it is to be humiliated, and to grow distant from one's loved ones - he seems to shrivel as a human being, forever flying off the handle in pursuit of the individual he believes to have wronged him.

Humiliation proves the narrative motor here: Farhadi keeps riffing on ideas of exposure, whether by collapsed facade, stagefright, or being caught with one's trousers down. In a superbly thought-through and performed scene, our unravelling protagonist agrees to return one student's confiscated phone on condition the boy use it to call his own father and confess to the illicit photos stored away on the memory card - only for another student to point out that his classmate's father is dead. It's an egg-on-face reversal that might well be appreciated by both the haha-ing Nelson Muntz of The Simpsons and the Ingmar Bergman who once made a (no less theatrically informed) feature called Shame, a poster for which lurks among Emad's scattered possessions as a clue to understanding the whole (or as a lesson unlearnt). How far will this guy go? Taking prisoner an ageing sadsack who would appear far more likely to be cast as Willy Loman, and threatening to out him as a whoremonger, the cool teacher of early scenes has all too clearly transformed into a hotheaded, self-righteous bully.

It was midway through this second hour that I started considering just how far Iranian cinema has itself travelled over the past three decades: travelling from the spare rural formalism of Kiarostami's Koker trilogy to these works of astonishing dramatic complexity and sophistication, from niche arthouse concern to Academy Award triumphs and packed Trafalgar Square screenings as a tool in the resistance against an incoming American president. I would stress the primacy of The Salesman as a gripping film experience in its own right, except that part of its project is to venture a fully articulated warning about the unedifying business of pursuing grudges into the public sphere, and to offer the kind of thoughtful moral instruction that the current White House administration would appear unwilling or unable to provide. For more reasons than just the travel ban that led to its director's boycott, this really was the most political Oscar winner on the eventful night of February 26, 2017 - and it arrives on these shores as arguably the most resonant, too.

The Salesman opens in selected cinemas from today.

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