Art and Experience: An actor goes to cruel extremes in Asghar Farhadi’s drama of hurt pride and revenge.

Returning to film in his native Iran after the French interlude of The Past, Asghar Farhadi continues his exploration of the dark side of the soul, using a traumatic assault to trigger a young husband’s uncontrollable thirst for revenge. Lacking the astounding social complexity of his Academy Award winning drama A Separation, here the gears are not so hidden and a sense of contrived drama leads to some tedious sections. But all is forgiven when the final punches are delivered in a knock-out finale that leaves the viewer tense and breathless.

At this point there’s not much doubt that Farhadi’s work has revolutionized new Iranian cinema, pulling it out of the much-beaten path of realism and self-reflection pioneered by directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf and onto a new, highly dramatized and theatrical road. The Salesman takes this tendency to its limits, even incorporating a theater play into its story of hurt pride and revenge.

Though once again, the social divisions in modern Iran play a crucial part in the drama and its repercussions on the characters’ lives, they aren’t as compelling as the strong upstairs-downstairs social dynamic between masters and servants in A Separation and the director’s earlier Fireworks Wednesday. What’s most at stake here are the psychological weakness and moral vacancy of the main characters, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who are working actors and part of Tehran’s cultural aristocracy.

The film opens on their rehearsal of Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer-winning play Death of a Salesman, with Emad playing Willy Loman and Rana his wife Linda. It’s amusing, but not much more, to see such an all-American classic adapted into Farsi and performed in Iran, where such unexpected difficulties arise as having the sexy Miss Francis appear completely covered up when the dialogue indicates she’s hardly dressed. There’s also mention of the censors coming over to adjust parts of the play. Yet it is eventually performed under a big neon sign advertising gambling and booze, to a rapt audience.

One dramatic night, Emad and Rana’s spacious modern apartment, which they’ve just rented, has to be evacuated when the building begins to collapse. They’re lucky to find another place to stay through Babak (Babak Karimi), who works in their theater troupe. What he doesn’t mention is that the former tenant was a prostitute, euphemistically referred to as a woman who had many acquaintances. She also must have a small child, given the scribbling on the lower walls, and this small fact, so typical of Farhadi’s subtlety, reminds the viewer not to dismiss the woman out of hand. Though there’s another clue that Babak may have made use of her services, he has evicted her at the insistence of the middle-class neighbors. She has left behind some personal belongings, which greatly irritates Rana far beyond their intrinsic interest value, and this is the first time the film indulges in some wheel-spinning.

We’re still in the first act when Rana returns home before Emad and is attacked in the shower. Here again, the nature of the violence is handled with great care, but it becomes clear that she was raped. Alidoosti, who is coolly distant in the role, becomes almost dislikable when she comes home from the hospital traumatized and full of phobias. Sympathy then swings to Emad, who is doing his best to cope with her pain and unreasonable demands, but soon reaches his limit. Since they have decided not to go to the police to keep Rana from being grilled on what happened, he launches a search for the perpetrator.

It is from this point that the story cashes in. As the tension mounts, Hosseini (who won a Silver Bear for his role in A Separation) subtly shifts Emad’s attitude from caring to frightening. Hell-bent on humiliating the man who humiliated him, he seems much more enraged at the insult to his pride than the assault on his wife’s body. The cruel plan he concocts is both loopy and chilling and has unforeseen results on everyone around him.
The final scenes introduce a new group of characters, among whom Farid Sajjadihosseini is unforgettable. Keyvan Moghadam’s production design is also a standout, in double apartments featuring Farhadi’s trademark windows and doors as locations for social interaction.

Production companies: Memento Films Production, Asghar Farhadi Production with Arte France Cinema in association with Memento Films Distribution, Doha Film Institute, Arte France

Cast: Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi, Farid Sajjadihosseini, Mina Sadati, Maral Bani Adam, Mehdi Kooshki,Emad Emami, Shirin Aghakashi, Mojtaba Pirzadeh, Sahra Asadollahe, Ehteram Boroumand, Sam Valipour

Director, screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi

Producers: Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Asghar Farhadi

Director of photography: Hossein Jafarian

Production designer: Keyvan Moghadam

Costume designer: Sara Samiee

Editor: Hayedeh Safiyari

Music: Sattar Oraki

World sales: Memento International

125 minutes