After a construction accident renders their apartment unlivable, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) temporarily move to a new apartment owned by an acquaintance from their acting troupe. However, soon after they move, Rana is assaulted by an unknown man who arrives at the apartment believing he’s visiting the previous tenant. Rana spirals into traumatic depression while Emad investigates the assault so he can get revenge on the culprit.
On the surface, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman is a revenge drama, but don’t be deceived by the plot description. The director of A Separation is not going to make a John Wick-style action film. The Salesman tells a revenge story, but like Farhadi’s other films, its preoccupations are firmly on psychology and human interaction. For Farhadi, plot is a means of rigorously investigating character. Like all great melodramatists, he embraces convention and isn’t beyond loud theatrics to prove a thematic point, but his detailed attention to human emotion is what sets him above his contemporaries. Simply put, Farhadi’s rigorous plotting and excessive detail make his characters human in ways most filmmakers cannot manage.
Emad and Rana in The Salesman are no exception to this trend. The particular details of their Iranian lives make them vaguely exotic for western viewers, but their core characteristics are achingly universal. These are flawed individuals, who attempt unity in their daily lives but whose tenuous balance is violently interrupted by the assault. Farhadi has little interest in the assault itself. Thankfully, unlike most other filmmakers, he doesn’t depict it so as to avoid exploitation. He’s more interested in the repercussions that come out of it, mostly Emad’s anger and Rana’s trauma.
Much as he did in A Separation and The Past, Farhadi pits individuals’ perspectives and experiences against each other with no interest in one character’s narrative “winning” in the end. Instead, he lets viewers witness both sides of the relationship and sympathize with each character in turn. For instance, Farhadi never condescends to Emad’s gauntlet of emotions, which flies from concern to rage to a lingering frustration with Rana in rapid succession. Emad’s frustration with Rana is limited and toxic, but it’s also comprehensible. That we understand every character’s actions in The Salesman, even if we don’t agree with them, is key to the film’s success.
The Salesman is not great cinema because it’s formally audacious or narratively original. Like with Farhadi’s previous films, it’s full of clean frames and fluid camerawork that disappears into the background of scenes. It’s great because of its immense capacity for empathy. Character, not camera or politics or the ego of the director, dictates every moment.