Last year there was a successful, UK financed, Tehran-set horror called Under the Shadow. It told the story of a woman who won’t leave her home in spite of the fact that it’s being attacked by a Djinn. It was a rudimentary, if effective piece of filmmaking, which received considerable plaudits in the UK. The fear was contained within the apartment’s walls. The Tehran it described (actually filmed in Jordan), was claustrophobic and restrictive.
Farhadi’s film shows a Tehran which has much in common. Once again a woman, Rana, finds herself feeling under threat in her own apartment. However, in this case, the threat isn’t supernatural. It’s the down-to-earth fact of a man coming in to her apartment when she was in the shower and assaulting her, possibly raping her. Farhadi’s world is real, tangible, and in its way far more scary. At the same time, it’s more morally complex, more profound. Rana’s husband, Emad, doesn’t know quite how he should react. Rana doesn’t want to go to the police because they are a potential threat as well. Emad sets out to find the culprit and exact revenge, a revenge which Rana herself doesn’t want any part of. This dark moral complexity is beautifully handled and, for an hour and a half, completely absorbing. Suddenly, not just the apartment, but everything, becomes a potential threat, because within such a rigid society, any unorthodox behaviour could be seen as an indication of guilt, even on the part of the victim. Both Rana and Emad are liberal souls. They are both actors, taking part, as it happens, in a version of the Death of a Salesman. But Emad’s liberal instincts have no place in a society where justice is an unreliable concept. If the state can’t be trusted, then the individual is compelled to become his own judge, and that’s not a comfortable position to occupy.
The fact that the protagonists are actors contributes to a sense that Farhadi is both celebrating and evaluating the role of culture in everyday life. The troupe of actors, for whom this is clearly not a full-time job, clean up the theatre and dedicate their time to the pursuit of culture. Only in the cultural field, such as the film itself, can our societal values be interrogated in a neutral space. The script sets up various subtle parallels with Miller’s text. The tension builds and builds until the final twenty minutes or so. Up to that point the handling of pace and dramatic tension has been masterly, but the denouement is drawn out and ends up feeling melodramatic. Theatre can get away with this kind of protracted ending more readily than film. It starts to feel as though the director is dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s.
In spite of this The Salesman is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, in its way far more terrifying than any kind of horror. It’s not the unknown which is truly terrifying; it’s the dominion of banal, day-to-day fears which have the power to turn any society into a place of consummate, inescapable fear.
(ps Thinking about this, it’s striking how few films emerge from what might be termed ‘restricted’ or ‘restrictive’ societies. Clearly censorship plays a part in this, as does the repression of artistic freedom, something which impacts on film in particular, as it requires more infrastructure than say, a novelist or a singer, in order to create its narratives. But this is also true of, for example, of the Mexican experience in the US. An enormous semi-clandestine society, whose stories have never been told in film. There will be countless other examples. It goes to show how political, economic and artistic freedom are tightly interwoven in the creation of cinema. Unless this is another example of the way in which the tyranny of cinema’s distribution chain in turn censors which films we are permitted to receive?)