One tricky part of reviewing independent and foreign films in the Midwest is that every year my “Top 10 Films” list always feels a bit up in the air. Films like The Salesman, winner of Best Foreign Language Film at the last Academy Awards, are released on the coasts but don’t creep this far inland until months later. For example, I didn’t see many of my favorite films from 2015 until about halfway through 2016…but my Top 10 was published months earlier. I make my annual Top 10 list late enough as it is, so I can see at least most of the domestic films generating awards-season buzz; they usually arrive in Omaha by January or February. I’m telling you this because if I’d seen The Salesman a few weeks earlier, I’d have definitely put it somewhere on my Top 10 Films of 2016 list. Probably near the top, too.
The Salesmen introduces us to a married couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). They are actors co-starring in a local theater production of Death of a Salesman. As their apartment collapses in the middle of the night, Emad springs into action, helping residents escape the building. We’re not sure whether he’s genuinely heroic or if he just likes people seeing him act heroically.
It’s not long before the couple finds a new apartment, and Rana is brutally assaulted by an intruder. Alidoosti quietly navigates an unbearable mix of emotions after the attack, and her performance is so incredible that I’m bummed she hasn’t received more awards attention. Sadly, award shows tend to favor “big” performances over subtle ones like this, no matter how remarkable they are. Rana refuses to file a police report, as she wants to forget the attack as quickly as possible. But Emad is determined to be a hero, as he starts his own private investigation.
Because of that early collapsing apartment scene, we’re left the whole film wondering whether Emad is investigating the attack because he genuinely wants justice for Rana or because he wants to reclaim his own macho sense of protection and ownership of his wife. It’s a remarkable takedown of “rape/revenge” films, which often show women hunting down their attackers for explosively violent comeuppance—a very macho fantasy that ignores reality. Rana fears the trauma of coming forward and being re-victimized by a society that may very well blame her for the attack but Emad wants big, loud justice.
The other tricky part of reviewing independent and foreign films is that the truly great ones tend to sneak up on you. The Salesman may sound like a straightforward thriller with a bit of social awareness thrown in, but the nontraditional tension is something you’ll just have to see for yourself because I can’t tell you spoilers. The Salesman isn’t a thriller with shocking character deaths, occasional jump scares and shocking character deaths. Instead, it quietly builds a unique tension between two characters at odds with how to handle major trauma. I’ve never seen another thriller quite like it.
Grade = A