I finally got round to seeing The Salesman, which won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year. At the time I suspected voters chose it for political reasons, and quite honestly having seen it I am more convinced than ever that was the case. It certainly did not deserve to beat the wonderful Toni Erdmann, much less Under the Shadow, which would have been my choice despite not even being nominated.
The Salesman is still worthwhile, but it lacks the incisiveness of director Asghar Farhadi’s previous films The Past and A Separation (for which he also won an Oscar, deservedly on that occasion). The plot concerns a couple who are both starring in an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s seminal play Death of a Salesman. Said couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), have both recently moved into a new apartment, due to structural damage in their old place. When Rana is assaulted and raped in her new home, Emad is determined to track down the perpetrator, even though his traumatised wife would rather he let matters be.
Direction and performances are solid, with Farhadi’s trademark subtlety, nuance and restraint present and correct (the rape is not depicted at all). Nonetheless, this shares a weird DNA with Paul Verhoeven’s similarly themed, and infinitely more disreputable Elle, and quite honestly that was the more provocative and – dare I say it – entertaining work.
To be fair, Farhadi does delve into the complexities of revenge, human nature and the psychological effects of rape, as well as Iranian cultural attitudes regarding the subject matter. I also respect him enormously as an artist producing sterling work under the watchful eye of censorial overlords (neatly reflected in a moment where possible censorship of passages in the Death of a Salesman production are discussed). But for me The Salesman is definitely a lesser work, by his own very high standards.
All that said, there is still much to recommend here. I just don’t think The Salesman deserved that Best Foreign Language Film win.