“The Salesman” opens like a disaster movie: In Tehran, the residents of an apartment building evacuate as the walls shake and the world seems to be caving in over their heads. Among them are Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), a married couple who are part of a troupe of amateur actors in the midst of rehearsals of a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”
The building doesn’t collapse — the whole incident was the result of a construction accident — but it’s rendered uninhabitable, leaving the pair temporarily homeless. Forced to find another apartment quickly, they take the first place they find, which was vacated so recently that the previous tenant left her belongings behind. When Emad and Rana ask about her, they learn she was a “woman of many acquaintances,” or a prostitute.
One night, while Rana is home alone, she absent-mindedly answers the intercom, assuming it’s Emad, and buzzes him in. But it turns out to be someone else.
The rest of “The Salesman,” the latest work of social commentary and domestic realism by the great Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation,” “About Elly”), depicts how Emad and Rana deal with the aftermath of their unexpected visitor. “The Salesman” doesn’t have the same precision and emotional wallop of his previous films: The plot hinges on a couple of convenient contrivances, and the first half meanders a bit.
But Farhadi operates at a level far above most other contemporary filmmakers, which means pretty good from him would pass for great from practically anyone else. The last 30 minutes of “The Salesman” generate the sort of great emotional suspense that has become the filmmaker’s signature — this is another study of how far decent, civilized people can bend before they break — and the surprising ending reveals that the movie’s real Willy Loman surrogate isn’t who you thought it was.
“The Salesman” is one of this year’s nominees for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. But Farhadi, who previously won the category in 2012 with “A Separation,” won’t be attending the Academy Awards, in protest of President Donald Trump’s travel ban. “I hope that the current situation will not give rise to further divide between nations,” he said in a statement announcing his decision. From the earth-shaking accident that opens the film, “The Salesman,” too, warns of the dangers of plastering over fissures so deep that they will eventually — inevitably — give way.
Cast: Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi, Mina Sadati.
Writer-director: Asghar Farhadi.
A Cohen Media Group release. Running time: 125 minutes. In Persian with English subtitles. Brief violence, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema, Tower.