The final monologue of Arthur Miller’s American classic Death Of A Salesman is devastating on its own, but in Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, it’s couched in a separate domestic tragedy—this one taking place in modern-day Iran. The film’s main characters, married couple Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), are Willy and Linda in a Persian-language production of the play. Off stage, they’re reeling from an incident wherein an intruder entered their new apartment in search of its previous tenant and injured Rana.
Like his Academy Award-winning A Separation, Farhadi’s latest drama explores how familial units are tested when strangers intervene. Rana’s spirit is crushed, but Emad becomes intent on finding who invaded his home and making the perpetrator pay. The A.V. Club sat down with Farhadi and a translator at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. This week, The Salesman was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
The A.V. Club: What drew you to incorporating Death Of A Salesman into the film?
Asghar Farhadi: When I was writing the treatment, I didn’t know what play I should put in the film. At first I thought it could be a Persian play. And then I started to read all the plays that were very important in my life again—[Jean-Paul] Sartre, [Eugène] Ionesco, Tennessee Williams. When I read Death Of A Salesman, it was like a gift. I had read the play before, but this time when I read it, I felt like there are so many links between my story and this play. The salesman that comes at the end of the film, the old man, is Willy Loman from the play. The prostitute in my film that we don’t see at all is like the prostitute in Death Of A Salesman. There are lots of links between these two stories. Both from the story side and theme side.
AVC: So did you form Emad and Rana’s story in full independently of finding the play that they were going to be performing in?
AF: I hadn’t written the whole thing at first. I had two, three pages of treatment, and I knew they were actors, but I didn’t know what play they were doing. I knew that the characters’ jobs were in theater.
AVC: Why theater?
AF: When they are actors, when their work is with theater, it means they work with culture. And when they work with culture, it means they teach something to the society. That’s why the other job of the male character is teaching as well. When the characters are like this, we ask more from them, to be more intellectual. We think that everything that they do, they already thought about it, and they do the right thing. That makes the audience more sensitive toward what these characters do when their work is cultural.
AVC: What were the themes you wanted to explore in terms of the invasion of privacy and home?
AF: There are lots of themes that you can talk about, but it depends on the audience—which theme and which angle of the film is more important. The first theme that every audience can get easily everywhere in the world is the theme of judgment. You are constantly judging if this character is doing something wrong or right, or the other character is doing something right or wrong. If you want to go a little bit deeper, there’s the theme of reputation in your society or your personal private life. These days, more than any other time, we are worried about our personal life, our private life. When we talk about our private life, it means our home, our body even. It seems that when we want to have calmness in this world, we make a wall around us. This gives us a very calm environment, and when we feel that somebody is intruding into that, it makes us very angry and we feel we have to do something about it.
AVC: Did you also see parallels between Emad and Rana in the characters that they were playing on stage?
AF: Emad is acting as Willy Loman in the play, and in the real life, he faces a Willy Loman, a Persian version. She plays the Linda in the play, and she faces the Persian version of Linda, the woman with the hijab. They feel like their house becomes a stage for a second, and they’re an audience watching the play unfolding in front of them. They swapped places with the audience.
AVC: You mentioned that you were perhaps going to use a Persian play when you first started writing. What was the significance of having it be an American work that they were performing?
AF: I didn’t choose the play because it was an American play. I don’t think that big artists’ work belong to any country. After a while, they belong to the whole universe. When I was reading the play, I thought that Arthur Miller knew that somebody would make a movie out of this, and he put the important keys there for me to make a movie out of it. I had a prostitute in my story; he had a prostitute in his story. The socks motif is in his play, and it’s in my film as well. Even the face of Willy Loman that I have imagined from the Death Of A Salesman is very similar to the guy that I had in my film.
AVC: The film begins with the evacuation of an apartment building, and it returns to it at the end. Why did you look to that space?
AF: That empty house for me at the end is like a theater stage. At that point, the border between theater and real life goes away. In theater, there are buttons to turn on and off the light, and at home, we have the same thing. We turn the lights off. So I tried that. In the beginning, we are in this house, which is full of furniture and stuff, and at the end, slowly this furniture goes away and becomes like a theater stage.
AVC: What does theater mean to you personally?
AF: I think that theater is the closest medium to music. It’s very pure. It’s for the elite of the society. It’s not for everyone in the society. I really think that people who want to think more serious have to go and watch theater. Theater is a very sterilized art form. Not as much as music, but very close to music.