The Salesman: Arthur Miller & Sexual Assault in Iran

Written & directed by Asghar Farhadi

An intruder assaults a woman in her own bathtub. As she slowly recovers physically and tries to recover emotionally, her husband’s obsession with finding and punishing the perpetrator only makes things worse. In The Salesman, all points of view, and all emotional reactions, are understandable and believable–even when they go over the line. You may not like every character, but you’ll understand them.

But that’s what you should expect from a film by the great Iranian filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi. If you’ve seen A Separation and The Past, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, see them.

After making The Past in France, Farhadi returned to his native Tehran for The Salesman.

Emad (Shahab Hosseini) teaches at a high school. From what we see, he’s good at the job; his students love him. He’s also performing the role of Willy Loman in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. His wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) is playing Willy’s wife Linda.

The Salesman begins with a near disaster. An apartment building shakes dangerously, and has to be evacuated in the middle of the night. Perhaps that’s a metaphor for how future events will shake Emad’s and Rana’s marriage.

The assault–bad enough to send Rana to the hospital–occurs soon after they moved to a new apartment, while Emad was out shopping. After the fact, they’re told that the previous tenant had been a promiscuous woman with a lot of male visitors. Perhaps the perpetrator was a lover of the former tenant, and grabbed the wrong woman.

Rana doesn’t want to bring in the police, as that would require her to mentally revisit an experience she wants to forget. So Emad sets out to find the perpetrator on his own. There’s plenty of evidence. The man had left in a hurry, without his cellphone, car keys, and cash.

Obsessed with the assault, Emad makes things difficult for his healing wife. When Rana is healthy enough to cook a meal, he insists they can’t eat it because she bought the ingredients with money left behind by the attacker.

And so their relationship frays while they’re performing in an emotionally-charged play with a tragic ending.

I’m not really sure why Death of a Salesman is such a strong element in the story. Emad’s and Rana’s problems don’t parallel the Loman’s. And yet, not only did Farhadi include many scenes from Miller’s play in the film, but he referenced it in the title.

Actually, I have a theory, but it’s one I can’t discuss without a spoiler. I discuss it after the Spoiler image below.

Farhadi has a unique cinematic style, with long takes and neutral emphasis on the various characters. I don’t know if Ozu influenced him, but I suspect he did. I’m already looking forward to his next film.

Warning: Spoiler below

Do not read passed the image below unless you have seen the film or don’t care about getting too much information too soon.

When we finally meet the perpetrator, he’s a frightened man of late middle age, just like Willy Loman. And like Willy, he’s an adulterer with a mistress on the side (the apartment’s previous tenant).

Although the adultery issue is a very small part of Death of a Salesman, the scenes from Miller’s play that Farhadi inserted into the film largely deal with that particular subplot.