From a terrace overlooking the sprawl of Tehran’s concrete suburbia, a suburbia burbling with crane-dug troughs and towers, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) sighs. “What are they doing to this city?” he says, his voice thin in an ambience heavy with construction work. “I wish we could tear it down and start again.” The thought is immediately shutdown by a colleague, a generous middle-aged man helping Emad and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) relocate. “They’ve already destroyed and rebuilt it. Look how it’s turned out,” he replies. The passing exchange has little to do with the physical fabric of Iran’s society. Asghar Farhadi, the writer and director of Forushande (The Salesman), has simply held a mirror to the lives of his central characters, fifteen minutes into his masterpiece.
Emad Etesami is a high school teacher. Rana is a childless homemaker. Both are in their thirties. Both are into the ‘arts’, actors in a theatre company. For the upcoming play, an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, they have been cast as the leads — Willy and Linda Loman. The Etesamis spend their evenings rehearsing on stage. But one night, when their home is threatened by cracks and their apartment building is on the brink of collapse, they are forced to evacuate. In their new apartment — one of its rooms locked away with the belongings of the previous tenant — fissures appear in their marriage and their world is on the verge of caving in.
Farhadi, a wizard of the ordinary, manages to carefully articulate a thriller from the everyday. His canvas is the space between the walls of a middle-class household — the kitchen, the corridor, the hall, the bathroom. The setting has shades of Michael Haneke’s Caché; at once cozy and claustrophobic.
Just like in Haneke’s film, you constantly have the feeling that they are being watched. By their neighbours. By their friends in the theatre group. By their audience. By a closed circuit camera. When one of those watching invades this space and assaults Rana in the shower (the bathroom floor lathered in blood), Farhadi’s lens shies away. Now the locked room takes centrestage in Emad’s search for answers, its contents doubling up as clues to the whodunnit mystery.
Quite like in Alejandro González Iñárritu’sBirdman, where Raymond Carver’s What We Talk AboutWhen We Talk About Love glues the narrative together, the story of Farhadi’s apartment is interlocked with Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Despite their personal anguish, Emad and Rana are determined to get back on stage. Putting on make-up proves to be a welcome distraction. But eventually, as they get under the skin of their stage characters, the line between the Etesamis and the Lomans blurs. When Willy Loman is shown lying in a coffin as a caution before the movie’s climax, you know that a death is imminent.
The conclusion is simultaneously traumatic and mesmerising. The air of the apartment is both suffocating and rich, straddled someplace between vindictiveness and guilt. This, Farhadi achieves without a clinical act of violence. Such is his control over his craft, both as a writer and a filmmaker.