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‘The Salesman’: Enjoy it for the intrigue, not the uproar

Emad (Shahab Hosseni, left) and wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) live in a crumbling Tehran building in “The Salesman.” | COHEN MEDIA GROUP

Even in a vacuum “The Salesman,” Asghar Farhadi’s latest film, would demand to be seen.

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s immigration ban, it’s more urgent than ever.

Farhadi makes the personal political and vice versa — no surprise for the gifted filmmaker, who won the Academy Award in 2012 for best foreign language film for the brilliant “A Separation,” the first Iranian film to win the award. “The Salesman” is nominated this year. But Farhadi and star Taraneh Alidoosti have announced that they won’t be attending — even if they could, given that Iran is on the list of seven countries affected by the ban — in protest of Trump’s executive order.

Perhaps this unwanted attention will bring more people to the theater to see the film. That would be a good thing, no matter what gets them there. But it would be a disservice to Farhadi, Alidoosti and everyone else associated with the movie if that’s the only reason they go. In a perfect world people would go simply because it’s a terrific movie.

But maybe the world isn’t so perfect right now.

The film is set in Tehran, where husband and wife Emad (Shahab Hosseni) and Rana (Alidoosti) are preparing to play Willy and Linda Loman in a production of “Death of a Salesman.” Emad is also a teacher. They live in an apartment building that literally starts falling apart, courtesy of a construction project next door. A cast member finds them another apartment, but moving in is complicated because a woman who lived there with her young son hasn’t taken her belongings.

She’s left behind something else, too: a reputation. Neighbors “say she had “lots of acquaintances.” They’re relieved to learn that Emad and Rana work in the arts (Emad is also a teacher).

One day Emad goes to the market while Rana prepares to take a shower. The buzzer rings. Assuming it is Emad returning home, she opens the door and heads back to the bathroom. Farhadi cuts to the market, where Emad is paying for his groceries. Something’s not right.

When Emad does get home, he sees blood on the stairs. He rushes in and finds more blood in the bathroom. In a panic he heads for the hospital, where Rana is having head wounds stitched. What happened? Neighbors say they found her lying on the floor, bleeding. An intruder attacked her, she says, but can’t or won’t say more.

When you’re a police reporter one of the things they tell you is to always describe a crime as specifically as you can. If you don’t, the reader’s mind will wander to the worst possible place. That’s what happens here — Farhadi keeps the nature of the assault vague, and that is one of the things that drives Emad to obsession over finding the culprit.

It’s up to him. Rana doesn’t want to go to the police. “I don’t want to have to tell it in front of everybody,” she says. A neighbor — male, of course — suggests that if she did go to the police she would have to answer for opening the door to her attacker, even if it was an accident. There would be questions.

To a Western audience this is maddening. To Rana it is a way of life. She may be able to enjoy some artistic freedom (though the play is censored in sometimes amusing ways), but in other ways she may as well be living in the Middle Ages. And yet — the great Alidoosti expresses so much just with her eyes, with a small movement — Rana tries to heal, to move on, while Emad’s desire for revenge only grows. The path he follows shakes us, makes us constantly reevaluate the characters and their motivations.

The performances are remarkable. So is the way Farhadi tells the story.

Events have landed “The Salesman” in the middle of a political struggle, but in some ways that’s fitting. It’s more must-see than ever.

Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network

★★★1⁄2

Cohen Media Group presents a film written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic elements and a brief bloody image). In Persian with English subtitles. Running time: 125 minutes. Opens Friday at Regal Webster Place and AMC River East.