On “The Salesman”

by Natalie Jacobs February 27, 2017


The Oscars turned political again this year, after 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign brought attention to the unrepresentative complexion of last year’s nominee roster. While that issue has bubbled up in Hollywood before, the controversy this year is from an unlikely source – the President of the United States. As a result of Trump’s Executive Order which placed a travel ban on people from seven Middle Eastern and African countries, the director of Iran’s Oscar-nominated film “The Salesman” decided that there were too many “ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me even if exceptions were to be made for my trip.” Asghar Farhadi would not be traveling to Los Angeles from Tehran for the Oscars.

His movie, however, is screening in San Diego this month as planned and it is well worth seeing. The film’s drama happens between scenes from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” The central couple, Emad and Rana, are acting as Willy and Linda Loman in a theatrical production of that play when their life is turned upside down in a couple different ways. That the quintessential play about the “American Dream” rolls beneath the action is no accident, but Farhadi (the writer and director) takes pains to string the audience along for as long as possible until he offers any substantial clues as to what he might actually be trying to say about that.

The differences between the two societies – the capitalist United States of the mid-20th century and the crumbling metropolis of contemporary Tehran – are made clear through subtle references to government censorship of the “Salesman” production, and a complex scene in which Willy Loman’s mistress complains of needing to get dressed, while wearing a wool coat instead of a nightgown.

Farhadi is a thoughtful storyteller, with a patience and restraint that is distinctly not American. He used the statement about his decision not to attend the Oscars to share what he would have said, had he been able to travel freely to the event.

“Hard-liners, despite their nationalities, political arguments and wars, regard and understand the world in very much the same way. In order to understand the world, they have no choice but to regard it via an ‘us and them’ mentality, which they use to create a fearful image of ‘them’ and inflict fear in the people of their own countries.”

Farhadi asserts that “instilling fear in the people is an important tool used to justify extremist and fanatic behavior by narrow-minded individuals” but says that he believes the similarities between humans of all nationalities far outweighs the differences. His film “The Salesman” celebrates the differences between humans in different social contexts and by watching it, we may get closer to those universal commonalities.


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