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.
The stakes are raised for certain stage scenes in The Salesman because we know the mental states of the actors are agitated. When Rana decides to carry on performing despite her ordeal, we wonder if “doctor theatre”, as actors sometimes call it, will provide a temporary distraction for her pain. However, she has a breakdown provoked by the gaze of a particular male audience member. Early on in the film, Emad makes the jokey suggestion that the couple will have to temporarily move into the theatre, but Farhadi shows us that they cannot help but bring their domestic problems on to the stage anyway, just as personal strife can spill into any workplace. This is echoed when Emad’s private dispute with Babak erupts before the audience as he goes angrily off script.
Farhadi, who studied dramatic arts and stage direction at university, started out writing plays and has spoken of his hopes to put on theatre in the UK. The Salesman derives much of its power from uncomplicated theatrical techniques and trappings. The opening sequence shows stage lights being turned on and a set featuring neon Americana signage; domestic lighting is used to powerful effect in the film, too, such as the bulb that explodes ominously when Rana first views the bathroom.
Significance is given to curtains and furnishings in the couple’s flat in a manner that feels more traditionally theatrical than cinematic. There is something inherently theatrical too in the continued presence felt by a character we don’t meet – the sex worker who never fully moves out of the couple’s new flat and who haunts their lives rather like the woman for whom Willy buys stockings. While the film uses a number of different locations and is partly shot on the streets of Tehran, a lengthy section towards the end plays out in the confines of an apartment and unfolds, as observed by the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, like a chamber piece by Strindberg.
In 2012, Farhadi won Iran’s first Oscar for his film A Separation, a similarly tense drama that also draws its strength from finely balanced characterisation. The Salesman brought him a second Oscar, but he did not go to the US for the ceremony both as a protest against Donald Trump’s travel ban and “out of respect for the people of my country, and those of the other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the US”. While Farhadi’s film itself does not pass overt comment on Miller’s portrayal of the United States in Death of a Salesman, this well-publicised offscreen drama gives an extra dimension to a troubling, superbly acted film about a cracked American dream play.