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‘Death’ restaged

‘The Salesman’ uses Arthur Miller’s play to critique Iranian masculinity

From Iran, 2016’s Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film seemed to get its Oscar boost from President Trump’s controversial travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. 

The apparent protest votes in favor of “The Salesman” were meant to make a political statement, given Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s boycott of the Oscars in response to Trump’s travel ban, but the film itself never actually broaches any of the current hot button topics of immigration, xenophobia, or the refugee crisis. 

Instead, this 2016 Cannes Film Festival winner for Best Actor (Shahab Hosseini) and Best Screenplay finds Farhadi exploring familiar territory: marital strife and a violent inciting incident. But this time, unlike the straightforward telling of 2011’s “A Separation” (Farhadi’s first Oscar-winner), he contrasts his intense domestic drama against another, more iconic work—one of the great plays of the American theatre.

The title “The Salesman” does not, in fact, refer to its protagonist’s occupation but, rather, the character he’s playing on stage: Willie Loman, the tragic figure in “Death of a Salesman,” Arthur Miller’s seminal, cynical portrait of The American Dream. But rather than making a pointed anti-American commentary, Farhadi draws the parallel to form a critique of Iranian masculinity. Or to be more blunt, it’s a full-blown indictment.

The movie opens on an impending catastrophe as people flee an apartment complex, and even in the midst of Farhadi’s signature naturalism we still see bravura filmmaking. Chaos erupts throughout a lengthy single take of complex cinematic choreography, leaving Emad (Hosseini) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) unsettled and displaced. By the end of it, so are we.

The couple quickly relocates to a new apartment, thanks to a tip from a fellow cast member. Emad and Rana forge on with the show; their shared love of theatre is a bond in their marriage, and she co-stars as Willie’s dutiful but perceptive wife Linda. The affection they have for each other is genuine but, despite these accurate initial perceptions, Farhadi allows us to slowly realize how similar these two are to their damaged onstage alter egos, and does so by patient association rather than calling it out directly.

In fact, as a literature professor by day, Emad seems much more savvy than Willie, both intellectually and empathetically. He’s a good teacher, a good spouse, and gracious even to rude strangers. That all changes, however, when a brutal crime occurs at the new residence. The abusive act does not reveal a dormant fissure between Emad and Rana; it creates one. 

This divide, at first subtle, is caused by an external, random act for which neither was prepared. Emad, despite his gift of empathy for others, is unable to appreciate or care for the depths of his wife’s new psychological fragility. A subconscious emasculation has crippled Emad, and the Freudian expression of his debilitated virility takes passive aggressive forms. Emad’s curt impatience toward Rana not only deflects his own latent shame, it compounds hers. The insecurity of his own strength causes him to wield it as a destructive rather than protective force.

There is no father/son conflict here as there was in Miller’s play, but Farhadi doesn’t need it to illuminate his point. So truthfully, universally rendered are these conflicting undercurrents between masculinity and femininity—which include unintentional misogyny by well-meaning men—that one truth becomes damnably clear: destructive gender dynamics can be as much the purview of the democratic West as they are the theocratic East.

Full Circle

A brief rundown of what’s happening at the Circle Cinema


My Life as a Zucchini
An Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature, this stop motion gem is an emotionally stirring tale of Zucchini, a recently-orphaned boy in a hostile foster environment now searching for a new family, and learning to trust again. Rated PG-13.

Mr. Gaga
Opening in conjunction with the OK Dance Film Festival, this documentary is a unique portrait of Ohad Naharin, the acclaimed choreographer and creator of the “movement language” called Gaga. Amy Morrow, a Gaga instructor, will lead the audience in a mini-Gaga class following the 3 p.m. screening on Sun. Mar. 19.


The Salesman
See above review. Rated R.

Land of Mine
A 2016 Academy Award Nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, this Danish drama is based on a true story. In post-World War II, Allied forces required a group of surrendered German soldiers to remove their own landmines from the coast of Denmark. Rated R.


Summer Wars (2009)
This presentation of the Circle Anime Club tells the story of Kenji, a teenage math prodigy whose date with a girl he has a crush on leads to the breach of virtual reality world. Chaos and destruction ensue. (Fri. Mar. 17 and
Sat. Mar. 18, 10 p.m.)

The Secret
This free documentary presentation compiles interviews with leading authors, philosophers, and scientists as they discuss the Law of Attraction, and explore how people can apply it in their everyday lives. A special live presentation called “The Law of Vibration” follows. (Mon. Mar. 20, 7 p.m.)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
The Graveyard Shift presents the third film in the Freddy Kruger franchise, generally considered the best, and perhaps deepest, sequel of the series. Shown in 35 MM! (Fri. Mar. 24 and Sat. Mar. 25, 10 p.m.)

The Outsiders @ 50: A Celebration
In partnership with Booksmart Tulsa, Circle Cinema celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the classic novel about rival teen gangs in 1960s Tulsa. Author S.E. Hinton will be present for the event, starting with a 2 p.m. talk and book signing (limited to first 250 people). Francis Ford Coppola’s film version, shot in Tulsa and starring the 80s Brat Pack in early roles, will screen at 4 p.m. (Sat. Mar. 25, 2 p.m. talk; 4 p.m. film) 

For more from Jeff, read his review of ‘Get Out.’