While conversing with a friend last night, I confessed to him that I’d been reduced to tears by three films that I’d watched recently. In return, he asked me why humans love sad endings so much. Of the three films that I’d watched, only two of them had “bittersweet” endings, the third one — Wonder Woman — briefly induced tears of relief during action sequences. But his question about our affinity for stories with tragic endings made me think about what makes tragedies so compelling.
Aristotle, who along with Socrates and Plato, laid down the foundations for much of Western philosophy, also wrote the earliest surviving book on dramatic theory — Poetics. In Poetics, he offers that when one watches a tragedy unfold on-stage, emotions such as pity and fear get purged; one experiences catharsis.
In Asghar Farhadi’s ( A Separation, All About Elly) Oscar-winning tragedy, The Salesman, one experiences more than just fear or pity because of the auteur’s ability to wrench out complex emotions out of a seemingly facile setting. The film opens with a long tracking shot of Emad Estesami, (Shahab Hosseini) a lecturer and theatre actor, running up and down the stairs of a building that’s shaking with tremors. Cracks appear in the walls of the home that he shares with his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). The couple moves out of that home and into a quaint apartment, which is littered with the belongings of its previous tenant. The tenant was a single mother, and the haunting traces of her invisible life, urge the protagonists to get her property out of the house as soon as possible.
Farhadi, who studied theatre in school, borrows the title of this film from a Pulitzer-prize winning play, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. While the association might feel superficial in the beginning, Farhadi is a gracious filmmaker; he uses both theatrical melodrama and stifling silences to draw attention to the ways in which fiction parallels real life. Like Miller, the Iranian-filmmaker is a political storyteller, whose work builds to a quiet devastation by disrupting societal norms.
The childless married couple belongs to a theatre troupe, engaged in the production of Death of a Salesman. Their roles as Willy and Linda Loman, whose desire for social mobility leads to crushing disappointments is an unambiguous reference to the Estasmis’ need to maintain the facade of domestic bliss, even when things go south.
One night, when Rana is alone at home and taking a shower, the buzzer goes off. She unlocks the front door, thinking it’s her husband and steps into the shower again. The next time we see her, she’s unconscious on a hospital bed with a huge open wound on her forehead. Back at home, Emad attempts to rummage through the debris and looks for clues, feeling incapacitated because he couldn’t protect his wife. He pieces together a sequence of events — an intruder entered the house when Rana was taking a shower, an ensuing struggle leads to the glass door getting broken, the intruder leaves with bloody feet — which lead him to a murky quest in search of retribution.
When Rana returns home, she displays classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and refuses to discuss the incident with anyone including the police. While conducting his own private investigation (without Rana’s knowledge or approval), Emad finds out that the previous tenant was a prostitute. He infers that the intruder must have been a former client, who thought he was joining her in the shower and even left some money on the floor. Emad’s spiteful behaviour in contrast with his progressive appearance further alienates the audience from his character.
While explaining the characteristics of an ideal protagonist in a tragedy, Aristotle wrote that he must be, “A man who is highly renowned and prosperous, but one who is not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgement or frailty…” According to him, the flaw in the protagonist’s character — Hamartia-– is essential because it keeps him on a human plane. In The Salesman, Emad’s descent from a beloved schoolteacher to a man, whose antiquated ideas of machismo drive him towards violence, reveals unforeseen fissures in his marriage.
In the climax sequence, when the threat of a phone call is employed as a final weapon it becomes apparent that shame defines the proceedings of the film. It clings to the couple as they try to piece together their life after Rana’s rape. It haunts the wings of the theatre where the co-actors are only too eager to know if Emad managed to nab the culprit. It brings out Rana’s underlying complexity and decency. It permeates Emad’s consciousness and converts him into a cardboard caricature of toxic masculinity as he succumbs to almost primal vindictiveness.