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Asghar Farhadi's 'The Salesman' plays out an emotionally complex domestic tragedy

Asghar Farhadi's 'The Salesman' plays out an emotionally complex domestic tragedy
In the film "The Salesman," Taraneh Alidoosti, left, and Shahab Hosseini star as a married couple acting in a Tehran stage production of “Death of a Salesman.” (Amazon Studios / Cohen Media Group)

It will come as little surprise to admirers of the Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi that his new film, "The Salesman," unfolds mainly in a couple of nondescript apartments. As he has demonstrated in the likes of "Fireworks Wednesday" (2006), "A Separation" (2011) and "The Past" (2013), Farhadi excels at finding the mystery in the mundane. Again and again, he thrusts his camera into scenes of meticulously choreographed domestic confusion, turning a series of interconnected rooms into spaces of intimate psychological revelation.

In "The Salesman," which is one of this year's Academy Award nominees for best foreign-language film, another, more artificial kind of space looms. The movie centers on a married couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who are actors starring in a Tehran stage production of "Death of a Salesman."

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There are compelling glimpses here of the challenges of translating an American classic into Persian and taming its content for the approval of local censors. But Farhadi is far more interested in treating the story of Willy Loman as a thematic counterpoint to his own busy narrative machinery, encouraging us to read the similarities and differences between one unhappy home and another.

It's a somewhat ungainly life-imitating-art conceit, but Farhadi, who is nothing if not meticulous, fleshes it out in surprising ways. The bareness of the theatrical stage, with its bright lights and sparse furniture, mirrors the temporary living circumstances in which Emad and Rana find themselves after their apartment building nearly collapses, forcing them to find a new home.

The rooftop flat they wind up renting from Babak (Babak Karimi), another member of their troupe, is far from ideal. The previous tenant was evicted by Babak at the insistence of her neighbors, and she has left half her possessions behind and refuses to come pick them up.

Later it turns out that she was known as a woman of "many acquaintances" — a euphemism whose meaning becomes clear when Rana unwittingly opens the door to an intruder one evening, with devastating results.

I won't reveal the exact nature of the crime here, in part because the film, perhaps mirroring its characters' own discretion, never quite spells it out, either. But the traumatic ripple effects are clear enough, and Farhadi, working with the cinematographer Hossein Jafarian, traces the patterns with unvarnished realism and acute sensitivity.

Rana, physically injured and emotionally scarred by her encounter with a stranger, retreats into a sanctum of fury, grief, detachment and neediness. Meanwhile, Emad sinks deeper into his own private hell, torn between his instinctive desire to protect his wife and his wounded male pride. Hosseini, who won an acting prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival (where "The Salesman" also received a screenplay award), twists his handsome face into an angry scowl and turns Emad into a study in pure, emasculated rage.

Eventually, his desperation gives way to determination, as he follows a series of clues — a wad of cash, an abandoned truck — that he hopes will help him track down the perpetrator and extract a measure of justice. This isn't the first time Farhadi has used the conventions of the detective story in order to illuminate the deeper, more elusive puzzle of human nature: Think of the careful withholding of information in "The Past," or the "Rashomon"-like clash of eyewitness testimonies in "A Separation," in which Farhadi welded the crafty suspense-thriller plotting of vintage Hitchcock to the emotional complexity of Jean Renoir.

At his best, Farhadi ensures that every twist of narrative is matched by a revelation of character — and something more: a startling, laserlike insight into the particular social and cultural environs that shaped these characters and their reasons for reacting the way they do. The world of "The Salesman" isn't quite as intricately imagined as some of its predecessors, and the story's sleuthing element, while absorbing, often feels more narratively expedient than germane.

But if the setup is creaky, the payoff, when it arrives, is a thing to behold. The final scenes of "The Salesman" unfold with devastating power, much of it courtesy of an older man (a superb Farid Sajjadi Hosseini) whose story casts as much of a shadow over Emad and Rana's marriage as the Arthur Miller play in which they're performing.

Another apartment becomes a staging ground for the often-unspoken rifts in contemporary Iranian society — between men and women, traditionalism and modernity, the working class and the cultural elite — and throws those conflicts into sharp, wrenching relief.

If Farhadi's work has a governing theme, it might well be Renoir's great, compassionate insight — memorably stated in his 1939 masterpiece, "The Rules of the Game" — that "everyone has their reasons." This is as true of Babak, who conveniently withholds his former tenant's history when renting the apartment to Emad and Rana, as it is of their mostly unseen neighbors, whose gossip indirectly leads to the tragedy at hand. And it is surely true of the shamed tenant herself, whose face we never see, but whose possessions remain to bear defiant witness to her own unmistakable humanity.

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'The Salesman'

Farsi dialogue with English subtitles

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Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

MPAA rating: PG-13, for mature thematic elements and a brief bloody image

Playing: Laemmle's Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles

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