Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi, director of the 2012 best foreign language Oscar-winning “A Separation,” whose new film “The Salesman” has been nominated this year, vows not to attend the ceremonies (if, indeed, he is even allowed to). He is doing so to protest the present administration’s efforts to ban all travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran. Hopefully Farhadi will change his mind. If he wins and does appear and accepts the award it would be an opportunity to celebrate cinema’s power to bring us together and reveal our common humanity.
And it would celebrate the power of theater, as well. In Farhadi’s brooding, revelatory new film, Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a teacher and member of a local theater group, is staging Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” casting himself as Willy Loman and his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), as Linda, Loman’s long-suffering spouse.
As often happens in films about putting on plays, life imitates art, but in this instance obliquely. Like Loman, Emad meets with discouragement and disrespect. Censors harry him with demands to cut proscribed material from the play, the cast squabbles, his students grow fractious and his home — which Loman at least had full possession of in the end — is rendered uninhabitable when construction in the neighborhood rattles it like an earthquake.
It looks like Emad and Rana will have to live for a while in the theater itself, until another member of the cast, a landlord, offers them a recently vacated apartment. “For once,” Emad tells his wife, “it looks like we’ll have a lucky break.”
It’s not to be. The previous tenant, apparently a prostitute, refuses to remove her belongings. Nor has she informed her clientele that she has relocated. In a sequence reminiscent of “Elle,” the 2016 release that’s earned Isabelle Huppert a best actress nomination, someone enters the new apartment while Rana is in the shower. He attacks her, leaving her unconscious with a head wound.
Whether the assault was sexual or not is unclear, but it is enough to traumatize Rana. It also poisons the couple’s relationship. Suspicions, guilt, recriminations, perhaps already long brewing, emerge. Worse, Emad becomes obsessed with finding the attacker.
As he and Rana grow more and more estranged, Emad gets closer to tracking down the culprit. His need for vengeance begins to erode his common decency, and he takes on in life the role of the antagonist to the character he plays on stage — the brutish world that crushes Willy Loman.
★ ★ ★ ★
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. Starring Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babik Karimi, and Farid Sajjadi Hosseini. At Kendall Square. 125 minutes. PG-13 (for mature thematic elements and a brief bloody image.) In Persian, with subtitles.