The revenge tale is one of the film industry’s favorite tropes. It is the key plot device in films such as “Oldboy” and “Kill Bill.” Both films follow a similar format, yet differ in the trope’s structure and execution. A revenge story remains essentially the same in each iteration: someone violently enters the protagonist’s life, leads them to take drastic steps to find the culprit and exacts revenge upon them, while also trying to intellectually comprehend what led to the traumatic action in the first place.
These films usually begin and end with gratuitous acts of violence, almost as a form of catharsis stemming from the realization of the main character’s mission. But Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman” veers quite dramatically from the traditional structure of the revenge film. Farhadi’s brutally muted, almost casually devastating portrait of a marriage fractured by a violent home intrusion is a frighteningly suspenseful and surprisingly unhinged portrayal of revenge. The shocking contrast stems from the restraint expressed by the characters, complemented masterfully by Farhadi’s direction.
“The Salesman” centers around the relationship between Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana Etesami (Taraneh Alidoosti), a married couple who recently lost their apartment due to structural damage. Emad and Rana both work as actors, starring as Willy and Linda Loman in a revival of Arthur Miller’s classic play “Death of a Salesman.” A fellow actor, Babak (Babak Karimi), introduces them to an apartment up for rent because the tenant could no longer afford to live there. Emad and Rana eagerly move in, creating a pragmatic realism for the first 45 minutes of the film that provides a perfect foundation for the near-surrealism of the second half.
One day, Emad remains at the theater while Rana returns home. A man breaks in and assaults her, mistaking her for the sex worker that used to live there. The directing in this moment is spare and unrelenting. Hosseini and Alidoosti wear their corporeal grief on their faces like a weight, more affecting than any scene of violence could possibly be.
The ensuing events center on the suffocating strain that trauma can cause in a relationship. The assailant leaves a few of his belongings behind, leaving Emad desperate to do anything he can to track the attacker down. When he is unable to, Rana asks him to stop looking and instead to help her recover from her trauma. He responds with frustration and anger.
Emad, subconsciously co-opting his wife’s trauma as his own, is painfully human. He believes he is looking for justice for Rana, but finding the identity of the attacker can really only satisfy him.
The film ends in a nauseatingly uncomfortable fashion — a near hour-long exchange that, if revealed here in more detail, would be greatly cheapened. What can be said is that what Farhadi does with the moment would usually be dismissed as impossible: he makes each party’s actions taken and words absolutely vital to the scene. Not only that, he vitalizes those things that remain unsaid. The expression and the repression are equal, essentially leaving the viewer at a moral and ethical crossroads.
“The Salesman” is nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars this year. Unfortunately, due to the noxious geopolitical climate ushered in by Donald Trump’s rise to the U.S. presidency, Farhadi himself — an Iranian citizen — will be missing from the awards show. Originally, he would not have been allowed to attend under Trump’s executive order banning U.S. entry for nationals from seven different Middle Eastern countries. Now that the ban has been blocked (at least temporarily), Farhadi himself has announced that he has canceled his plans to attend the ceremony, in condemnation of the executive order and the unjust, prejudicial environment it has created.
Since the film is a strong contender to win its category, Farhadi’s absence will be glaring. But it won’t just be obvious from an administrative standpoint; it is symbolically significant as well. Farhadi’s protest represents the stark, unforgiving worldview and vision that Trump has for the United States. Trump envisions a country where people like Farhadi have no place and are categorically excluded due to their ethnicity, religious denomination or skin color.
Trump has villainized an entire group of people in reaction to the threat of terrorism abroad — a threat that the vast majority of Muslims and refugees from impoverished, war-torn countries don’t pose to the United States. These people, who Trump seeks to alienate and antagonize, seek refuge from the turbulent circumstances surrounding their own countries. For example, many Syrian citizens cannot justify remaining under the autocratic, brutally violent governance of Bashar al-Assad.
And yet Donald Trump does not care about the trials and tribulations of these people. This is because these struggles, portrayed by visionary artists like Farhadi with “The Salesman,” do not exist within Trump’s vision for the United States. Through the ostensibly dire circumstances surrounding the ascendance of Trump, Farhadi’s mission to elucidate a new cultural connection is even nobler than it would have been before.
Now more than ever, international storytelling must be at the forefront of popular culture. Bowing to threats of silence by a fledgling autocratic ruler would insult the painstaking work of individuals like Farhadi — individuals who risk being accused of insurrection within their own countries and now also in the United States. Farhadi will be absent from the Academy Awards this year. The American movie-going public should be conscious of his absence and its symbolism in a broader context.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Jan. 30 print edition.
Email Bradley Alsop at [email protected]