(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/11; Photo: Cracks in a marriage … Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti in The Salesman. Photograph: Allstar/Memento Films Production. )
Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning film about two married actors has intriguing parallels with the play they are performing
At the start of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller devotes a full page of notes to describe the house where the long-married Willy and Linda Loman live in New York. It is, he writes, a “small, fragile-seeming home”. In his 2016 film The Salesman, Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi cranks up that symbolism. When we first meet the central couple, amateur-theatre actors Emad and Rana Etesami (played by Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti), their flat in Tehran is crumbling around them. Building work has made the structure unsafe, and they are suddenly forced to evacuate. This large-scale get-out is the first of several pertinent exits and entrances in Farhadi’s film about theatre. Emad and Rana initially weather the disruption with kindness and good humour, but before long the cracks in their marriage begin to show too.
Emad and Rana’s domestic disaster occurs as they are rehearsing Miller’s Pulitzer winner, in which they portray Willy and Linda respectively. The opening shot in the film is of the Lomans’ bed and Farhadi’s expertly paced account of the actors’ personal dramas lives up to Miller’s subtitle: “Certain private conversations in two acts and a requiem.” Farhadi intersperses scenes from Miller’s play – both in rehearsals and the production – and cleverly captures the fragility of theatre performance. He does this by conveying not just the nervous tension crackling between actors relying upon each other on a stage – which he achieves by up-close camerawork – but also a sense of fragility in the very sets that surround them.
The Salesman is a film best seen without knowing too much about the plot. To be brief: the Etesamis move into a new apartment thanks to a favour from fellow actor Babak, the previous occupant was a sex worker, and a double case of mistaken identity leaves Rana traumatised and Emad obsessed with revenge. It would be a mistake to draw too many comparisons between their story and Miller’s play. There is no equivalent merging of real and dream worlds in Farhadi’s film, and the Etesamis are younger than the Lomans and as yet childless, but Farhadi teases out similar themes to Miller such as a particularly masculine sense of pride, ambition and shame.
Emad is a literature teacher (the film invites us to see teaching as a performance style too) and none of his class has heard of Death of a Salesman. Viewers who do know Miller’s play will spot details in the film that parallel the world of the Lomans. When Rana and Emad arrive to look around their new top-floor flat, the city of Tehran is framed as if by a replacement proscenium arch. The shot is specifically designed to show a similarity with the Lomans’ house, described in Miller’s notes as surrounded on all sides by “towering, angular shapes” and an “angry glow of orange”. The very personal struggles of both Miller and Farhadi’s couples are played out against the constant proximity of their neighbours and, by extension, the judgment of wider society. Rana and Emad have a constant audience even offstage. This is a recurrent feature in Farhadi’s other films, summed up by the title of his 2018 Spanish kidnapping drama Everybody Knows.