Free and Clear

A Brief Commentary Review of
The Salesman (FORUSHANDE)
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi

Review by John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director


"And if you punish, you shall inflict an equivalent punishment. But if you resort to patience, instead of revenge, it would be better for the patient ones."
Qu’ran, Sura 16:126

In Arthur Miller’s 1948 theatrical classic, Death of a Salesman, the main character plays the role of a disgruntled shell of a man; exhausted from a life spent peddling some unnamed commodity that ends up being as meaningless as the sum of all his days.  Willy Loman is plagued by his failures that are a heavier burden to bear than the suitcases full of worthless wares he carries. In the end, he puts an end to his embittered life; but not before inflicting plenty of pain and misery on those around him.

Exactly why Iranian filmmaker, Asghar Fargadi decided to have Emad and Rana play the parts of Willy and Linda Loman in that play within his own drama leaves plenty of room for interpretation. The basic plot line of the two stories certainly differ. But since the play has been adapted and performed in countless different languages and countries around the world since it debuted almost seven decades ago (including two American-made movies), the filmmaker’s own comments in the interview (right) might suffice. But further, some of the underlying themes both dramas portray may also testify to much of the shared human conditions, despite the different cultural norms.

In modern day Tehran some of those contrasting social norms include fear of censorship, the impropriety of interactions between men and women in public, the whispered rumors that swirl around an incident that seems obvious to all, and an all-consuming fear of public humiliation and family dishonor that holds inner turmoil in check for as long as it can be endured. All this is plainly expressed throughout the story line.

In the course of the film, Emad is left to deal with the aftermath of a suspected and presumed assault on his wife, Rana. At first, both attempt to deal with the emotional scars with the oldest trick in the book: denial and pretense. On the surface, everything is fine; leaving nothing but the accusing, excusing and if-only recriminations all around.

While playing the part of Willy Loman however, Emad is learning what it’s like to live in another man’s shoes. His quiet despair will erupt as rage; improvising lines onstage, as he cleverly maneuvers ingenious ways off-stage to flush out what he most fears: the truth.

But time and again, just when the presumed truth is about to be confirmed, the filmmaker demonstrates the skill of his dramatic craft; taking the viewer on a rollercoaster ride. Each time you think you’ve come to the end of the ride there’s another curve.

The pitiful offender who has himself fallen victim to human temptation will be exposed as just another mere mortal; stripped of all other recourse but to beg forgiveness. There will then be the opportunity for sweet revenge to settle the score, only to have the hard truth of reality set in. While revenge can be deadly, and penance can be lifesaving, it’s a reckoning form of absolution that can kill you; when the guilty party with a bad ticker is laden with a burden too heavy to bear.  Like Willy Loman, the roadside salesman becomes a dead man walking. But it is Emad, the avenger, who is unable to escape playing the part onstage.

Towards the end of the film, Rana – playing the part of Linda Loman -- stands onstage in front of an open casket where Emad lies in repose as her dead husband, Willy. She recites the play’s closing lines:

“Forgive me dear, I can’t cry. Why did you do it? I search, and search, and search, and I can’t understand it, Willy. ...  I made the last payment on the house today. And there’ll be nobody home. (A sob rises in her throat.) We’re free and clear … .”

The last scene shows the two actors staring at themselves in the mirror, as stage make-up being applied for another stage performance. Who are they and what have they become?  It’s the filmmaker who skillfully leaves the viewer with the unanswered question to consider: Will what remains be forever cracked and shattered like glass, or will Emad and Rana ever be free and clear at last?