The Salesman is the story of a play that outplays a play. Asghar Farhadi’s postmodern version of Death of a Salesman portrays the true face of a developing society, in which tradition and modernity encounter in chaotic patterns. The play within a play is the story of Arthur Miller’s modern drama, but it is also the story of many Iranians, who fall in the schism of a changing society. Filming began in 2015 in Tehran, and the movie was released initially on May 21, 2017, at the 69th Cannes Festival. It stars Shahab Hosseini (Emad Etesami) and Taraneh Alidoosti (Rana Etesami) as a married couple, who are also the actors of Miller’s characters, Willy and Linda. The Salesman is not only an adaptation of the important scenes in Death of a Salesman but also a realistic problem drama, which voices the cultural challenges in Iran today. The film could have taken Farhadi to the Oscars for a second time, after his 2012 A Separation. However, Farhadi boycotted the ceremony, refusing to receive his award due to political differences triggered by Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13769, believing that such measurements against Iranians are unjust and therefore objectionable. Similarly, in his movies, he tries to implicitly show the real ambience of Iranians’ lives, when going through national and international changes, caused and influenced by global issues and policies.
At the beginning of the film, a whole building is trembling, and the residents, horror-stricken, alarm each other and evacuate. The Etesamis have to move to a new house in a relatively middle-class area of Tehran. Babak (Babak Karimi) has found the place and made a deal with its former tenant, whose identity is mysteriously unknown until the end of the film, to deliver the keys. Meanwhile, Emad and Rana resume daily life, practicing their play, or cleansing the new house. One of these nights, when Rana is alone at the apartment, the attack happens. Emad, who is also a high school teacher, comes back home and finds the house empty and the bathroom floor filled with blood. He learns through the neighbors that Rana is in the hospital, wounded on the head, and the attacker has fled. The family is disturbed, and Rana does not feel comfortable staying at home. She experiences a post-traumatic situation, and her husband Emad is determined to find the culprit and have his revenge. He tracks him down by the number of a car that has been left behind, only to discover the man’s story. The intruder – who had come to have an affair with the former tenant, a prostitute – seeing a woman in the bathroom, moves to rape her. But Rana, throwing herself out the room, does not let him succeed. Emad imprisons the culprit in the house, and calls the man’s family; but, later seeing the old wife’s happiness at finding her husband, he is unable to disappoint her with news of the adulterous, guilty partner. However, he hits the man, causing the old man have a stroke. His death is not certain, rendering the plot open-ended, but Rana and Emad are left playing a drama in which they are living a shadow of their own life, the death of a salesman.
In terms of comparison between the inner play and the outer, the intertextuality of the work, let’s start with the fact that in Farhadi’s movie, contrary to Miller’s drama, no salesman dies. The play is faithful to Death of a Salesman, except that as far as dying is concerned, the characters die a spiritual death when they lose their morals. The film is also updated, set in present-day Iran, and unlike Miller’s salesman, Farhadi’s characters are set as heroes and heroines, who survive the crisis. They live, and their revolution begins. Their time is different from the time of Miller’s play, so a postmodern remake of it, which shows a sense of progress, seems more proper for a play that is written in a more contemporary time. Farhadi’s own words show such an idea clearly. “I don’t want to say the conditions in Iran are the same as those in New York at that time,” he said. “But in appearance everything is becoming modern in Iran. Buildings and skyscrapers going up. Old buildings are being torn down. Arthur Miller is staged there. There’s cinema. But once you push that back you see Iran’s culture and tradition beneath. An individual may appear to be modern, but in certain circumstances they reveal themselves as anything but” (Fleishman). Iranians, still having Islamic beliefs, are more moderate people now, Farhadi would claim. His reactions toward Trump’s sanction also support such a viewpoint. Nevertheless, he is aware of the fact that the old culture has deep roots in the minds and souls of these people. History reveals that Iranians have experienced national and international tumults and corruptions over the centuries. They have had hopes, with reformist movements, and experienced isolation economically and socially in the globe. The young generation is conscious more than ever about their time. Modern and traditional, they have changed. Such ideology is reflected in the film. As an example, the old man is described as regretful of what he did, confessing that he was tempted; Emad knows that the culprit is the old man and that he must be punished; and Rana faces the aggressor in a brave and empathetic manner. However, the Islamic culture manifests itself in many aspects, as hijab is an accepted obligation for Rana, or for example, gheirat (Iranian word similar to male pride) is what drives Emad mad and revengeful. Another example is their idea of good money and bad money, as they are disgusted by the fact that their food is essentially provided by a prostitute’s income, the money that the intruder had left on the cabinet. Assuming it to be Emad’s allowance, Rana had shopped for dinner; but at meal time, Emad asks her about her lost credit card, wondering how she could buy stuff. It then occurs to Emad that the money left in the room was not his. It was the stranger’s; so they stop eating, as if the money, thus the food, was besmirched by associations with prostitution.
The postmodern play also exhibits a sense of exhaustion. The characters are weary just like Willy Loman was. As members of the elder generation in Iran, they come from a difficult past. Many of them were great thinkers, as well as artists and teachers, and they often joined or were involved with the political and social movements, not to mention the Iranian war against Iraq. Men and women are disillusioned and self-conscious. However, the tradition still simmers beneath the surface. For example, there still exist the differences mentioned by Miller about the non-American culture. Miller discussed in an interview with Kullman the reaction of the Swedish audience to his plays and how they liked it. He said: “Some of the etiquette is different. People don’t address parents quite the way Americans do, and there is also a question of intimacy. Americans make a play at being very intimate very quickly, which seems disrespectful sometimes to people who aren’t used to instant emotional closeness” (Kullman). Similarly, Iranians do not call their parents by names in Iran. However, the younger generations are more intimate and closer to the elders in a family. While the American Biff addresses his dad, calling him Willy, in Farhadi’s movie, we have the ambiguity of whether Babak is Rana or Emad’s father or just their friend and coworker. They call him by name, but in 1:18:22, Babak calls Rana “Baba,” a word meaning daddy, which is also addressed to sons and daughters. He refers to a woman who is probably his wife and therefore mother or mother-in-law to Rana. These and many other changes in culture can be observed between the younger generations. However, the process of synthesizing modernity and tradition victimizes some people, and as previously discussed, it provides us with a moral death in those who cannot cope with the new situation. In this sense, the death of a salesman in Farhadi’s movie is a matter of moral corruption and aberration.
Another postmodern characteristic in this film is referenced in the visual elements. As an example, the lighting parallels and, at times, contrasts with Miller’s stage performance, suggesting an intertextual relation. The lighting is mostly high-key and natural, contrary to Miller’s performed play, which is dark and artificial; but we have a growing darkness as the movie proceeds. From the midst of the film toward its end, or the time of Emad’s revenge plan, the setting is gloomy, and night has fallen on the couple’s lives. In 1:55:44, Emad turns the lights off in the house, and the stage, introduced for Miller’s play, goes dark simultaneously. However, unlike Death of a Salesman, The Salesman does not finish. There is no ending. We do not know what happens in the Etesamis’ life, if the old man dies, or if they decry him eventually. No answers. The play continues, and an artificial but high-key lighting ends the movie. Another visual feature is the characters’ costumes. They are in comfortable and everyday clothes, and the property owned by them and their furniture show their financial condition to be of average incomes. However, their lifestyle is a combination of old and modern. They don’t own luxurious commodities, but the appearance of their stuff is elegant and tasteful. There is also a nostalgic trace of old culture in their decorative choices. The tapestries, the coverlet, the music they listen to, etc., are a combination of past and present fashion.
Finally, we have the camerawork. Like in most Farhadi’s movies, the angle is at eye level and the shots are medium in scale. With this cinematography choice, focus is mainly on characters and their interactions, and the camera observes as if an actual human being (Wilson). An outstanding scene with this effect is in 04:53, when the camera is being led through a window, bending, and then looking down out of the apartment, where a bulldozer is busy at destruction work. A sense of mystery and threat is felt, and the audience discovers what is bringing the whole apartment down. In addition to this frequent use of eye-level angle and medium shots, Farhadi uses long shots and high angles, as well as close shots, giving the audience distance, an opportunity to think and judge. Farhadi’s play, with its many interrelating concepts and characteristics related to Miller’s play, is a polyphonic exhibition of “modern versus traditional” trends and conditions in Iran. It reminds the (post)modern men and women of the fact that they are living in a society and not in isolation. So they are not separate from their neighbors. In this sense, when one class of society is experiencing a situation, whether philistine, destitute, or uneducated, the people of other classes are also involved and influenced. There is no escape. If Emad’s neighbor, a boy named Hossein, is so sick in bed with an old woman nursing him, the whole building is shaking and, metaphorically, the humanity with it. Or else, although Emad is a modern man who loves his wife and both are educated and open-minded, they are living in a society whose other inhabitants are men like the attacker and his wife, and it shows that the Etesamis are not moral people either. Also, when a teacher like Emad, who is a model for his students, and they listen to him like he is their hero, revenges himself, one would think: okay, who is going to teach these kids about laws and regulation? As a modern man, he should have taken the case to the court and let the constitution decide. But he doesn’t, and his wife is too ashamed to do so, and they try to administer justice personally. The change in Iranian culture is inevitable. These reactions, as depicted by the characters, show a necessity for change, which is also inevitable, but to where the change is directed is yet to be known, and the works of artists like Asghar Farhadi are the mirrors to the reality of these upheavals and their consequences on the lives of people. Qeysar Aminpour, an Iranian poet, describes these people in one of his poems, the “Letters of Pain”:
People whose sheaths’ wrinkles ache,
People whose slaves’ colors ache,
People whose names ache,
The shabby cover of their birth certificates
Aminpour, Qeysar. “The Letters of Pain.” Shereno. Web. Nov. 18, 2017. <http://shereno.com/3340/3058/34513.html>.
Fleishman, Jeffrey. “Asghar Farhadi’s New Film Goes Deep into Shame and Vengeance in Iran.” Los Angeles Times, 26 Jan. 2017. Web. 9 Nov. 2017. <http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-ca-mn-asghar-farhadi-salesman-20170129-story.html>.
Kullman, Colby H. “Death of a Salesman at Fifty: An Interview with Arthur Miller.” Michigan Quarterly Review 37.4 (1998): n. pag. Web. 9 Nov. 2017. <http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.act2080.0037.403>.
Wilson, Karina. “Camera Angles.” Mediaknowall. n.d. Web. 9 Nov. 2017. <http://www.mediaknowall.com/camangles.html>.
Elham Shabani is twenty-eight years old and comes from Iran. Shabani studies English Language and Literature at the University of Isfahan and is interested in film and novel criticism.
 Translated by the author
The Salesman (2016)
Director Asghar Farhadi
Runtime 125 minutes