The Salesman – originally titled Forushande – is an Iranian film that took inspiration from the American play The Death of a Salesman. It’s been many years since I read the play but I still think about it to this day. On a corner of the page, past me scribbled: “uplifting and off-putting at the same time” which (I think) perfectly characterises Willy Loman and Emad. Willy searches for the ever so elusive American Dream all his life and dies without ever experiencing it first-hand, and Emad searches for closure and struggles with his identity as a husband (and protector) in a patriarchal society.
The quest for middle class respectability ends with our male protagonists suffering from the hero complex. In The Death of a Salesman, Willy is in his 60’s and still struggling to have a comfortable and easy life and pay off his home mortgage. His sons Happy and Biff are struggling to find jobs. Willy is exhausted and frustrated after losing his sales job. He equates possessing wealth to happiness, freedom and being well-liked. During his lifetime, Willy doesn’t experience these. He forgets about his humanity and works like a slave in a machine that promises riches and acceptance only if you make it to the top.
Powerlessness is the huge driving force. Emad is a teacher and part time stage actor. His wife Rana and he star in a production of The Death of a Salesman in the lead roles. One day their building (literally) collapses. They find a new apartment which was previously owned by a prostitute and, despite being aware of this, move in. Rana is mysteriously assaulted in the bathroom by a customer of the prostitute when her husband isn’t at home. She goes into shock and tries to deal with the trauma in her own way.
Emad becomes increasingly angry and paranoid. He feels humiliated because he couldn’t save his wife from the violence she experienced. Rana declines going to the police and retreats into a shell, rejecting her husband’s efforts to comfort her. Emad takes it upon himself to find the man who disrupted his peace & family life and seek vengeance. As revealed, the man in question turns out to be a sad old guy who has a wife, daughter and son-in-law. In one of the most tense and pathetic scene in my cinematic life, Emad slaps him. Rana demands Emad to let the man go after he apologises.
When masculinities are threatened, our male characters are driven to an extreme state of action. Willy drives his car into a wall and kills himself. Emad uses physical violence to counter physical violence. He doesn’t feel any less worse after that. He couldn’t singlehandedly defeat the Iranian male gaze. This doesn’t make them bad men though, they are good men who made the decision to act a certain way since society told them to. They conform and don’t want to let down the people they love. Therein lies the misfortune: the gap between reality and their versions of an ideal world. Rana and Linda (Willy’s wife) suffer silently, and they are memorable because of their endurance. They are the opposite of perfect but fully human and utterly horrified at witnessing their husbands disintegrating before their own eyes. The real tragedy is societies that extend false materialistic ideals and toxic masculinity be it in modern day Iran or America.