Unfathomable Pain

I watched The Salesman (2016) with my back pressed up against the seat, my shoulders hunched, and my jacket draped over me like a blanket. It’s not a fun movie to watch, but it’s not one that I could ignore.

 In Tehran, a building crumbles, on the verge of collapsing, and young couple Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) are forced to move. In the new apartment, the old tenant leaves her furniture behind. It’s not the only baggage she’s leaving. Neighbors hint that she was a prostitute, but we don’t know whether or not to believe them. One night, someone buzzes the door to the apartment building, and Rana, thinking that it’s Emad, lets them in without checking who it is. The camera cuts away; we aren’t meant to witness what happens next. We wouldn’t be able to understand her specific trauma. A neighbor finds her body, unconscious and bloody on the floor. Emad can only meet her at the hospital.

Throughout the rest of The Salesman (2016), we are closely aligned with Emad even though we know that the real pain lies with Rana. Emad, acting on his injured pride, is torn between seeking retribution from Rana’s rapist and trying to forget that the rape ever happened. Despite his pathetic seeming quest, Emad is still a somewhat sympathetic character. Still, when I get too caught up in his search for vengeance, I am reminded of Rana. She bears a pain so deep that she refuses to speak about it or reenter the restroom where it happened. Still, the last things she wants are to go to the police or seek vengeance. But Emad doesn’t listen.

Underlying all of this, Rana and Emad are actors in a production of Death of a Salesman, the classic Arthur Miller play. The themes of male responsibility and failure pervade both the play and the film. In fact, as Emad’s search for Rana’s rapist ends despairingly, they put on their makeup for another performance of the play. I’m left reeling. As a man who has never experienced sexual abuse, I don’t know what to make of the way that the movie prevents us from empathizing with Rana.

Later that night, I remembered reading the South African novel Disgrace (1999) by J.M. Coetzee. In this novel, a man tells the story of his daughter’s rape. He’s entirely concerned with getting back at the man who rapes her, and he seems to care more about his own pride than about his daughter. By remembering this novel, I was able to figure out the similar, valuable warning that I got from The Salesman. By aligning us with a man who seeks retribution instead of caring for his wife, we, like Emad, are forced to reckon with the inanity of acting to preserve our own pride. –Sage Marshall

Sage Marshall '19 studies English at Wesleyan University. He is co-founder and editor of Reverberations.

The Salesman (2016)
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi
Runtime: 125 min
Rating: PG-13