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The power of 'The Salesman' comes from putting pieces together

The universality of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" has always been a bit of a surprise to me. It seems too American a play to conquer the known world--too specifically mercantile and, frankly, too conspicuously "New York" and Jewish.

But it's so good and so universally applicable to a faltering old man to whom "attention must be paid" that it seems every culture extant understands it intimately.

"The Salesman" is a film from the great Iranian film master Asghar Farhadi. It's about an Iranian couple performing in a production of "Death of a Salesman" who undergo a terrible life trauma and find one of the themes of Miller's play circling in on their lives in a brutally ironic way.

It's a clever piece of work that has to be put together by the viewer to have its impact. It's a candidate for a Foreign Film Oscar whose possibilities are directly related to the vagaries of current Hollywood politics.

When the Trump travel ban was announced (for Iran, among other countries), Farhadi was fearful enough of the consequences for him that he announced to the world he wouldn't be attending the Oscars . It was a demonstration of his fear and antipathy.

Under ordinary circumstances, it seemsthe logical winner of that prize will be "Toni Erdmann," a film whose American remake has been announced. Going out of the way to give an Oscar to "The Salesman" would be a rather politically pointed statement from the Hollywood film community--a bit too pointed to be likely as interesting as the possibility is.

Which leaves the film which begins as realism and turns into investigative melodrama.

It's about a childless couple, Emad and Rana, who are playing Willy and Linda Loman in a production of "Death of a Salesman."

The movie begins when a collapsing building drives the couple out of their apartment into another building. What they were never told before they move in is that the previous tenant was a woman so promiscuous that her neighbors assumed she was a prostitute.

She was forced to leave in a hurry with her child in tow. Her clothing and belongings remained behind in a locked room.

In their first keyless day in the apartment, Rana opens the apartment door under the mistake impression that it was her husband that knocked. She then winds up  raped when she takes a shower. Everyone assumes it was one of the former tenant's "lovers."

The couple's subsequent psychological decline and melodrama and investigation take up the rest of the film.

Unfortunately, rape is such a pervasive and commonplace subject on American television that it doesn't begin to register as dramatically as it should outside of TV. What has become a lazy TV  writer's plot continues, is used here with brilliant irony to turn the theme of "Death of a Salesman" upside down.

Attention, as Miller said, must be paid in the words of Linda Loman. In this movie, that attention to human mortality is not very pretty. It turns the theme of the play upside down.

It's a good film but one utterly dependent on astute viewers to put it all together and understand how good it is. Just taking it in without understanding the title may well sink it, for some, into the role of involving but ignorable melodrama.

MOVIE REVIEW

"The Salesman"

3 stars (out of four)

Starring: Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahap Hosseini

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Running time: 123 minutes

Rated: PG-13 for mature themes and one bloody image

The lowdown: Iranian couple starring in a production of "Death of a Salesman" live through offstage private trauma. With subtitles.

 

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