The Sales­man is quiet, yet over­whelm­ingly in­tense

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - COLIN COVERT

In 2012, gifted writer/di­rec­tor As­ghar Farhadi de­liv­ered the first Ira­nian film to win an Os­car, the do­mes­tic drama “A Sepa­ra­tion.” If the fates are just, he will win again this year for his Os­car-nom­i­nated sev­enth fea­ture, “The Sales­man.”

It is by any mea­sure a great film, a quiet, yet over­whelm­ingly in­tense pro­duc­tion that forces us to re­cal­i­brate our no­tion of what sus­pense­ful cinema can mean and do.

It turns the hero/vic­tim/vil­lain setup of rou­tine mys­ter­ies into a nu­anced moral dilemma.

The film’s title refers to the play be­ing staged by its pro­tag­o­nists, a troupe of ac­tors pre­sent­ing Arthur Miller’s tragic “Death of a Sales­man” in Tehran. But as al­ways in Farhadi’s re­mark­ably so­phis­ti­cated work, there’s much more to be un­der­stood.

He in­tro­duces us to thor­oughly de­fined char­ac­ters who are not al­ways truth­ful about their mo­ti­va­tions — some­times be­cause they don’t un­der­stand them­selves.

Like sales­men, they put the best side for­ward and con­ceal the flaws.

The story opens in an apart­ment build­ing be­gin­ning to trem­ble and shift. An ex­ca­va­tor next door has weak­ened the struc­ture’s foun­da­tion, send­ing the ten­ants flee­ing.

The crum­bling echoes the is­sues fac­ing the mar­ried cou­ple liv­ing there.

Sha­hab Hos­seini’s Emad takes charge in the cri­sis, lead­ing Taraneh Ali­doosti’s Rana to safety and help­ing their neigh­bours quickly move down the stairs. Emad’s a fine per­former on­stage, too, bring­ing a sin­cere emo­tional cur­rent to his role as Willy Lo­man.

He makes us feel for the down­trod­den an­ti­hero through his pro­fes­sional fi­nesse rather than hokey but­ton-push­ing. In his day job as a boys’ high school drama teacher, he’s ad­mired by ev­ery stu­dent in his class. He’s ef­fec­tively play­ing three dif­fer­ent roles here, nail­ing the na­ture of the beast each time.

Rana is qui­eter, with­drawn, play­ing Willy’s wife in low-key form, while sub­tly keep­ing Emad at a dis­tance off­stage. They are both good at putting on al­ter­nate iden­ti­ties.

At home their re­la­tion­ship is a mat­ter of hit­ting their marks and de­liv­er­ing their scripted lines.

When they re­lo­cate into a new apart­ment, the fis­sures from the first act en­counter a new level of stress. The pre­vi­ous ten­ant has left be­hind a shady, trou­bling his­tory that soon re­turns. Rana is knocked un­con­scious af­ter leav­ing the apart­ment door un­locked. She doesn’t de­scribe the as­sault in de­tail to the po­lice or her hus­band. She wants it to be for­got­ten as quickly as pos­si­ble.

But Emad is un­will­ing to put the in­ci­dent to rest. He combs the new apart­ment, the build­ing and the neigh­bour­hood for clues about what hap­pened.

It is tech­ni­cally the ac­tion of a de­tec­tive, but Farhadi, mas­ter of psy­cho­log­i­cal sug­ges­tion, hints Emad wants to re­claim his role as strong, pro­tec­tive man of the house.

Or, as Rana puts it, he wants re­venge, but for his own sat­is­fac­tion. When he en­coun­ters a sus­pect, events take a heart­break­ing turn.

As al­ways in his films, Farhadi’s char­ac­ters are por­trayed with deep hu­man sym­pa­thy.

Farhadi presents us with three­d­i­men­sional chess games that need to be fol­lowed on mul­ti­ple lev­els.

It’s a hard trick for a film­maker to pull off, and a chal­leng­ing one for view­ers to ex­am­ine. But great films rarely suc­ceed with­out com­plex­ity.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sha­hab Hos­seini and Taraneh Ali­doosti in a scene from “The Sales­man.” The film was nom­i­nated for an Os­car for best for­eign lan­guage film.

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