One of the many reasons that Alfred Hitchcock is arguably the greatest filmmaker of all time — the quintessential filmmaker — is that his spirit and technique infuse the work of so many other directors (maybe all of them). He is, of course, the eternal god of anyone who has ever made a thriller. But he also hovers over those who could hardly be less “Hitchcockian.” A perfect example is the masterly Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi. Farhadi makes dramas of domestic discord that refuse to heighten anything they show you; they are steadfastly observant, unvarnished, specific and real. Yet when we watch a Farhadi film like “A Separation” or “The Past,” or his new one, “The Salesman,” we’re seduced, almost by a kind of invisible reverse trickery, into a situation of clear-eyed naturalism, except that they also start to realize we’re caught in a gathering storm, and it has everything to do with the shifting interior sands of the people onscreen. We’re caught up in something that can only be called suspense, and it’s galvanizing, but the suspense hinges purely on what’s going on in the characters’ hearts and minds.
“The Salesman,” rather uncharacteristically for Farhadi, opens on a note of stark cataclysm. An apartment building in Tehran appears to be ready to collapse, and the residents, who include the film’s married protagonists, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), are rushing out of there as if for their very lives. In the end, the building stays standing, but it’s a wreck, with gas leaks and giant cracks in the walls. Emad and Rana are forced to find another apartment, and they quickly do, moving into a shabby but spacious flat built onto the roof of a nearby building. But the queasy karma of that nearly imploding structure carries over to the new place. The former tenant leaves half her stuff there and refuses to come get it. When they ask why, the answer hinges on the fact that she is, as it is euphemistically phrased in Tehran, a woman of many male companions (in other words, a prostitute). The inconvenience nags, and then something happens that nudges the annoyance into darker terrain. Rana, home alone, hears the intercom, and buzzes in the person she assumes is Emad, only he isn’t.
Later on, Emad returns, and as he walks up the stairs, he sees bloody footprints, and inside the apartment he finds Rana, who has been struck in the head by an intruder while she was in the shower. At the hospital, she receives stitches, and her prognosis is fine. Except that everything is not fine. Stuff happens, and innocent people can get attacked in a big city, but the nearly random assault on Rana undercuts her well being. She is frightened … but she is also defensive. She wants Emad, a high school literature teacher, to stay home from school … but she also wants to be left alone. She’s a bundle of nerves (understandably), but more than that, she’s a bundle of contradictions. And that eats away at his nerves. Emad comes off as a paragon of chivalry who wants only to soothe and support his wife. But the situation is so jangled with Rana’s “unreasonable” feminine neurotic emotion that it won’t allow him to. And he starts to grow impatient.
For a healthy stretch, “The Salesman” is even more low-key, minimal and contained than the earlier Farhadi films. Yet the writer-director’s technique is just as assured as before. Every shot is in place, every line leading to an outcome that feels quietly up for grabs. As Emad begins to investigate the crime, he finds a cell phone and a set of keys that open a pickup truck that was left on their block. For a while, none of this seems to go anywhere. “The Salesman” generates relatively little tension as a neorealist detective yarn. But that’s all by design. Emad is only a so-so sleuth, but then he stumbles, virtually by accident, onto the person who, it appears, struck his wife in the shower. The perpetrator is not what we expect, and the revelation of who did it is not the point. The point is something far more saturated with emotional intrigue: Now that Emad has found the crook, what will he do with this knowledge?
In a revenge film like “Taken,” the hero, murderous with righteous passion, gets to enjoy the satisfaction of payback (as does the audience), but his machinations also serve a moral purpose: He’s finding his daughter and getting her back. In “The Salesman,” the psychology of vengeance is almost metaphysical in its complexity. Emad wants to punish the man who has caused all these problems for him — and considering that the damage the man inflicted was bloody and dangerous, there doesn’t seem to be much ambiguity about it. But the real problem that Emad is dealing with is the emotional withdrawal of his wife. That’s what’s making him angry; that’s what he wants revenge for. Deep down (in a way that he has zero awareness of), he’s getting back at her. And that’s what makes the unfolding drama of “The Salesman” so tense and devastating. The film is beautifully acted by Shahab Hosseini, who makes Emad a knight with a control freak inside, and Taraneh Alidootsi, who suggests a woeful Iranian version of Marion Cotillard. But the great performance here is that of Babak Karimi, as the lumpish nobody who caused all this. At first, you look at him with a shrug, maybe a glint of contempt, but within 20 minutes, he may have you in tears.
The film’s title, incidentally, refers to an amateur production of “Death of a Salesman” that Emad and Rana are both performing in. He’s playing Willy Loman, and she plays his wife, the beleaguered Linda. It’s a conceit that comes off as something of a contrivance — at least, until the very end, when the parallel between Emad and Willy at last hits home. They are good men who, through the tragedy of their choices, wind up letting down the people they love. Farhadi has fashioned a dramatic critique of what he portrays as the Iranian male gaze — a gaze of molten judgment and anger. As a filmmaker, though, his gaze is true.