The director's seventh film, which has been nominated for a foreign language film Oscar, is an exquisite, closely studied moral fable about our tendency to confuse love with ownership and our willingness in the face of felt humiliation to disavow empathy, understanding, and concern for our neighbor.
Frequent Farhadi collaborators Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti, who costarred in the director's 2009 tragedy of manners About Elly, star as husband-and-wife acting team Emad and Rana, who have just begun rehearsals on a new amateur production of Death of a Salesman, that old standby of the American theater.
But Farhadi's film isn't about the culture clash between Iran and America. His thematic web is more subtle and far more universal.
The recently married duo talk one night at the theater about their apparently hopeless search to find affordable digs. They're saved by a fellow theater lover (Babak Karimi) who offers them an apartment in one of his own buildings.
Beware of gifts and the well-meaning fools who bring them.
The Salesman features revelatory photography of Tehran as a sprawling metropolis filled with the chaos of everyday life. Everywhere there are new, half-finished apartment buildings and old buildings extended upward with ill-fitting extensions awkwardly planted on their flat roofs.
Emad and Rana's place seems comfortable enough save for one room, which is piled high with the belongings of the previous tenant, a woman of dubious moral character who seems to have run off.
Farhadi's films usually focus on relationships that hit disastrous snags. It arrives here in the shape of an aging salesman (Farid Sajadhosseini) who walks in on Rana one night when she's alone and in the bathroom. Did he think the old tenant – the girl with the dubious reputation – still lived there?
Injured as she runs away, Rana spends the bulk of the night in a hospital; the police get involved; and a kind of mass hysteria descends on the couple and their friends.
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is a play about radical humiliation. So is The Salesman. Feeling as if his property has been attacked and damaged, Emad becomes consumed with jealousy, rage, humiliation, and vengeance.
Stuck in a narcissistic cycle of self-pity and self-loathing, Emad forgets that his wife is a separate human being and not an extension of his own ego, just as he forgets the nosy neighbors are fellow humans – as is the foolish old man who broke into his home.
Hosseini and Alidoosti are agile performers who pack a world of meaning in every gesture. Their previous work with each other and with Farhadi has made them a reliable cohesive unit and they play off each other with great energy and emotional commitment.
Farhadi, who won an Oscar in 2012 for his masterpiece A Separation, shows with The Salesman that he hasn't lost his awe-inspiring talent for using the simplest of situations to illuminate some of the deepest and darkest aspects of the human character.