In “The Salesman,” a marriage, and one man’s ethics, are put to test

11:00 p.m Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017 Movies & TV
Shahab Hosseini, left, and Taraneh Alidoosti play a couple whose marriage is failing in “The Salesman.” Contributed by Cohen Media Group

It’s taken me several months to think through Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman” after first seeing it in May 2016 at the Cannes Film Festival.

Happily, the movie keeps getting better and better.

The reason for the confusion: It’s like watching “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” for the first time and trying to figure out whether the child of George and Martha was real or invented.

As with most artful works, “The Salesman” is filled with ambiguity, and it’s probably not a good idea to say that it definitively should be read one way or another. But if you are intellectually hospitable, then there’s a clear way to view “The Salesman” in the best possible light.

The movie takes place in modern-day Tehran, with a young literature teacher named Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). They’re starring in a semi-professional production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” And there are sly winks about whether certain parts of the production will be censored.

The temptation for many critics has been to wonder whether Emad is Willy Loman and Rana is his suffering but understanding wife Linda. A case could be made for this, but it doesn’t enrich the movie to see it that way.

As the movie opens, we see them having to flee their high-rise apartment because the building was apparently poorly constructed and is falling apart, with windows shattering and huge cracks suddenly appearing in the walls.

A fellow in the “Salesman” cast knows of an available apartment, and Emad and Rana move in quickly, only to discover that the previous resident might have been a prostitute and that she has left some of her belongings behind in a spare bedroom.

One night, Rana is home alone, getting ready for a shower and expecting the arrival of Emad from work. When the buzzer sounds downstairs, she lets the person in, assuming it’s her husband. It isn’t.

What happens next isn’t spelled out, as is typical with Farhadi, but Rana is either sexually assaulted while in the shower or she falls down in shock at the intrusion and hurts her head. The intruder escapes undetected, and Rana can’t identify him.

Rather than go to the police and put Rana through the embarrassment, Emad decides to get revenge by figuring out the identity of the intruder.

At the same time, the marriage between Emad and Rana is beginning to fail, with Emad not understanding the complicated emotions that his wife is facing.

But here’s the brilliance of Farhadi’s screenplay: If you dispense with trying to see Emad as Willy and are open to seeing a character from the third act as Willy, then you’ll see the ethical quandary that Emad faces when he confronts a good man who’s an utter failure.

Will Emad understand the essence of this man’s humanity, as Miller tried to show in his classic play? Or will Emad forsake empathy and seek revenge — in essence, rejecting his wife and his intellectual honor, in order to satisfy his injured ego?

That’s where the suspense of “The Salesman” comes in. The last act is a classic.