Movie review: Uneven 'Salesman' re-imagines Arthur Miller classic in Iran

Taraneh Alidoosti as Rana

Taraneh Alidoosti as Rana Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Cohen Media Group

The Salesman is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, but it won’t be well represented at the ceremony: Neither director Asghar Farhadi nor star Taraneh Alidoosti will attend.

You can probably guess why. After last month’s egregious executive order banning immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries, the two Iranians wouldn’t have been allowed into the country, let alone the Dolby Theatre, even if they’d wanted to. Both have opted to boycott the ceremony in protest.

It wouldn’t have been Farhadi’s first time at the Oscars. He won the award for his masterful A Separation five years ago, also earning a nomination for his screenplay — a rarity for subtitled fare. So successful was the film that two of the director’s previous efforts, About Elly (2009) and Fireworks Wednesday (2006), have since received delayed theatrical releases here in the U.S. The Salesman follows in their footsteps, but doesn’t always feel like a step forward.

In an apartment is a bedroom, and in that bedroom are the prior tenant’s belongings. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Alidoosti) have just hastily moved in after the near-collapse of their prior apartment building, and so they’re more accepting of this strange condition than they might otherwise be. We never see the woman who used to occupy their new flat, but her reputation precedes her: “a woman with lots of acquaintances” is how one neighbor describes her. Another is less subtle: “She lived a wild life.”

Emad and Rana are actors, both of them involved in a soon-to-open production of Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman. Farhadi has always been a deft dramatist in a dialogue-heavy manner that was easy to compare to theater, making this direct invocation of a stage classic fitting. But he doesn’t put his pieces in play as expertly as we’ve come to expect of him, and The Salesman’s most unexpected trait is its occasional dramatic inertia.

It doesn’t begin that way. Still reeling from the loss of their previous home, Emad and Rana are victims of an attack in their new home: She leaves the front door open for him before stepping into the shower one day, but it isn’t Emad who crosses the threshold. We never see who does, and neither, apparently, does Rana.

What we do see is blood in the stairwell, a wound on her forehead, and a different kind of hurt in her eyes. Alidoosti is an expressive performer who makes small gestures land like punches, the kind of onscreen presence who demands to be watched closely and carefully. (She also played the title character in About Elly, an even more unplaceable figure.)

Rana opts not to go to the police — the finger could just as easily be pointed back at her, and she already knows how her neighbors talk about women — prompting Emad to investigate on his own.

What he finds, and what we find, is unexpected and also a little unsatisfying. Like most Farhadi films, The Salesman turns on a single incident and expands outward from there. It just never seems to realize its full potential. You keep waiting for things to link together, allowing you to step back and see the bigger picture. Eventually you step back so far, you lose sight of the meaning altogether.

The Salesman
Director: Asghar Farhadi 
Starring: Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi
Rated: PG-13
Theater: Opens Fri. at Edina Cinema; more info here