'The Salesman' review: A marriage falters, and the show must go on

Every gut-twisting development in the tense, beautifully plotted films of Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi begins with an uncomfortable truth buried, never permanently, that leads to suspicion and, often, destructive impulses toward justice. Even when they're being honest, the women and men in Farhadi's films "Fireworks Wednesday," "About Elly," "The Past," the Academy Award-winning "A Separation" and now "The Salesman" cannot reveal all. Their country, their patriarchy, their spouses' recriminations discourage it.

Nominated for this year's Oscars in the foreign language feature category, "The Salesman" is a movie in conversation with a play. It's about a group of Tehran actors rehearsing and performing Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" and how the moral collisions in that 1949 classic intertwine with the messes being created offstage.

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In the first scene, a married couple, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini), are jolted awake by what appears to be their apartment building collapsing because of earth-moving construction next door. Damage to the building and their apartment means they must look for a new residence. One of their fellow "Death of a Salesman" cast members knows of a place, recently vacated (mostly; not entirely) by a woman who appears to have worked as a prostitute. The friend neglects to tell Rana and Emad what little he knows about the unseen, long-gone tenant. This evasion tips "The Salesman" into forward motion.

As in Miller's plays or those of Miller's chief inspiration, Henrik Ibsen, there's an inciting incident in Farhadi's film, a casual mistake that grows like a cancer. Waiting for her husband to come home to their new rental with the groceries, Rana leaves the front door open while she takes a shower.

We do not see what happens next (this is a common Farhadi strategy, the artful withholding of key information). But we learn that a man enters the apartment. Something occurs, and a bloodied and bruised Rana is taken to the hospital. The man, whose identity we eventually learn, was looking for the previous tenant.

Rana's nerves are now shot, and Emad makes matters worse, putting his own blinkered need for retribution ahead of his wife's wishes.

The crafty effectiveness of Farhadi's films lies in their precisely modulated domino effect, how one human misstep or misunderstanding leads to a larger one. There's some mordant humor in this portrait of the contemporary Tehran creative class. "What do they do?" asks one neighbor, regarding the new tenants. "They're in culture," says the go-between. "All the better," she responds, though what happens in "The Salesman" disproves that optimism.

Visually this is highly accomplished and fluid filmmaking confined, very often, to tight quarters used for expressive purposes. Farhadi uses various mirrors and reflective surfaces unself-consciously, framing different aspects of each player in what amounts to an improvisatory drama.

The director and his first-rate cinematographer, Hossein Jafarian, shoot the first scene, depicting the chaos of the abrupt evacuation of the crumbling building, in what appears to be a single take. Perhaps to make up for the slight tilt toward the male protagonist in his most lauded work, "A Separation," "The Salesman" doesn't shy away from showing its male protagonist as a righteous, misguided man. But he's still human. Everyone is in this picture, and in Farhadi's illusion-free worldview. The acting is wonderful throughout, but Alidoosti creates an especially haunting depiction of one woman's adversities in a country, and a marriage, that may not have her best interests at heart.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

Editor's note: Following President Donald Trump's Jan. 27 executive order, the Iranian filmmaker released a statement explaining his canceled plans to attend the Feb. 26 Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood.

Excerpts from Farhadi's statement:

"It now seems that the possibility of (my) presence is being accompanied by ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me even if exceptions were to be made for my trip. … Hard-liners, despite their nationalities, political arguments and wars, regard and understand the world in very much the same way."

"The Salesman" — 3.5 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic elements and a brief bloody image)

Running time: 2:05

Opens: Friday at the Regal Webster Place and AMC River East. In Persian, English and French with English subtitles.

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