THE SALESMAN (12A) 2016 Iran 125mins. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, with Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini, Babak Karimi. Persian with English subtitles.
Oh, the joy of tackling the big topics, advancing a theory of everything, solving the problems of the world, and where better to start than with an Oscar winner, indeed the filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi is that very rare thing, a double Oscar winner, up there with Ingmar Bergman and Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves if you must know), and not only an Academy Award Alumni, but he’s from Iran, a country which, if all goes very badly, may still end up at war with the United States sometime in the Trump era (may it be short).
Farhadi isn’t shy about taking on the biggest of cultural shibboleths himself. At the centre of The Salesman, the film, is a theatre production, in Tehran, of Death of a Salesman, that unassailable icon of American artistic sensibility, into which keeps intruding real life (or film life as it were) in the first instance an earthquake, which forces Rana and Emad, film life couple who play husband and wife, Willy and Linda, in the play (though they are much younger than their theatrical roles) to find another flat, their current one having suffered some damage.
Asghar Farhadi doesn’t really go into the story of Death of a Salesman. He merely picks a few moments, points where play and film intersect, but if you know the play (and it’s a fair assumption that it would be pretty widely studied in schools in the USA) then you would know the basic outline - that Willy’s son, Biff, catches his father in the company of a woman, not his wife, and this event has soured their lives and relationship in the intervening years. The play is really all about revealing the inner lives of the characters, with this embarrassing confrontation being the climax, presented in the form of a flashback.
And as much as Arthur Miller bangs on (in the play) about the American dream etc etc, the really revolutionary thing he did (revolutionary in 1949) was make the play about the characters’ internal conflicts, rather than about conflicts between each other, or the outside world for that matter. The training of actors to be the vessels for this kind of internal drama (the method) really began in the 1930s with writers such as Clifford Odets (who didn’t really cover himself in glory in front of the House of Un-American activities) whose plays were not so much pro-Communist as anti-Nazi. They were at bottom political, outward looking, however much that external struggle was reflected within the characters.
Death of a Salesman takes this idea to a whole new level. Now the only thing that matters is the internal struggle, the inner life. Seen from the lofty heights of almost seventy years later, the characters in Death of a Salesman are strangely disconnected from each other, strangely because this is a play after all. Arthur Miller’s achievement is to make this disconnect work somehow, to make a play out of it that succeeded.
This focus on the inner life obviously hit a chord in the post-war world. In a decade or so came the 60s, in 30 years Ronald Reagan. Everyone was clearly ready for the cult of the individual, for the primacy of emotion, of feeling over everything. So long as the feeling is mine, it must be authentic, it must be true, thus unassailable.
Willy Loman’s death is somehow heroic because we understand his inner life, the emotions and feeling which lead him to that outcome, however misguided. The feelings are true and therefore much be respected; or, as his wife says, ‘attention must be paid.’
And in a strange reversal, in the film of The Salesman, as much as apparent real life keeps interrupting the play, the play, or its ideas, keep forcing their way into the lives of the actors and those they meet. Something, an event, which happens to Emad’s partner, Rana, which happens effectively to both of them, Emad starts to internalise as happening just to him. He begins to become Willy Loman, focussed on his own feelings and emotions. Emad stops trusting Rana, and others who he suspects may not be as forthcoming as they should, and the more he goes inside himself, the more he begins to rely just on his own feelings, suspicions, supposed discoveries, the crazier he becomes, the more paranoid and obsessive his attempts to uncover the truth.
So, what was all that at the top about the big topics, solving the problems of the world?
It’s impossible to watch this film without the constant, nagging worry in the back of your mind that these two countries, Iran and the US, could end up at war. And in the very near future, for reasons that would be entirely based on a kind of fantasy, a mistaken world view. How can this be?
As wonderful as disciplines such as Politics, Economics and even Philosophy are, this film is an excellent example of the fundamental truth that if you really want to know what’s going on, the place to look is Art. The twin assumptions, the holy writ of artistic certainty, that which we never really question, are the core ideas of individual genius and the primacy of feeling. These two ideas have found their way into the most unusual of places, executive pay for example, the completely bonkers idea that economic austerity can lead to growth.
Pretty much any question where the answer seems counter-intuitive, in other words, goes against how we feel, you can be pretty sure that way of looking at an issue won’t get a hearing.
What would art that wasn’t based on the concepts of individual genius and internal emotion look like? There are lots of examples: Australian indigenous painting would be one, Islamic art and decoration certainly.
And this film.