Emad (Sahab Hosseini) is an intellectual. He teaches literature in a school and in the evenings he puts on plays; writing, directing and starring in them, alongside his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). Following a construction company destroying the foundations of the apartment block that this couple live in – a somewhat heavy-handed symbolic episode – the couple are forced to move and take an apartment that’s not quite as nice as the previous, and one that they discover was previously occupied by a sex worker. Her profession is actually not that important to the plot, despite it coming up a great deal, but there’s the nagging feeling that this is another symbolic attempt at making a point through the choice of her profession, even if it doesn’t entirely work.
One evening Emad is expected home and upon hearing the doorbell, Rana buzzes the door to the block open, leaves the door to their apartment ajar, and heads into the bathroom for a shower. It’s not Emad though, and Rana is assaulted in the bathroom by a stranger.
The reminder of the film is very much about the way in which Emad deals with this event and the fallout from it. Rana is obviously severely shaken by the attack, and Emad handles her emotional fragility and needs very poorly. Emad clearly feels impotent in this situation and like he should somehow protect Rana, feeling shame for not having been there to save her. As an intellectual, he decides to think his way out of the problem and sets about trying to track down the man responsible – they don’t go to the police for reasons that paint a bleak picture of the way such assaults are treated in Iran. He does not, significantly, show a great deal of care, love and emotional support to Rana, the thing that she almost certainly needs more than anything.
There’s a chauvinism inherent to the narrative here, and it’s one that bleeds out of the character of Emad, but unfortunately it bleeds a little too deeply into the fabric of the film too, with Farhadi giving such short shrift to Rana that she fades into the background too much. The Salesman is compelling for the most part, but the lack of connection to Rana – who is so simply presented and given so little to do – makes the film hard to engage with on an emotional level. This is ultimately a film about a man reacting to a sexual assault on a woman and one that sidelines the victim. Something we have surely seen more than enough of at this point.
The Salesman is a morality tale about a flawed central male character, who Farhadi doesn’t do enough to ensure we engage with. A somewhat interesting drama surrounding a crisis of character, but nowhere near up there with the best that Farhadi has had to offer in the past.