It tells the story of husband and wife Emad and Rana, an artistic couple (he teaches literature, they both act in the theater). They are currently performing in a production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, from which the film takes its title.
When their apartment building nearly collapses, they're forced to move. Their new apartment was previously occupied by a prostitute who serviced her johns there. Emad and Rana do not find this out until after a shocking moment of violence. The movie then explores themes of trauma and revenge.
This film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Oscars.
The film provides examples of:
- An Aesop:
- When something bad happens to your loved ones, take note of what they need, not you.
- Also, revenge is bad and keeping them will only make you alone and isolated.
- Affectionate Nickname: Emad is nicknamed "The Salesman" by his students, based on his role in Miller's play.
- Downer Ending: Emad never quite manages to put the Old Man to justice after seeing that doing that will break his family apart as well as the possibility of Rana leaving him. Then it's rendered moot anyway when the man experiences a second heart attack, from which he may not recover. Either way, everyone is left worse off than they are at the start.
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Evil is very stretched out here, but Emad ultimately decides to let the Old Man go after seeing that he means everything to his family, especially his pitiful and worried wife.
- Forgiveness: Emad ultimately decides to let the Old Man escape persecution. Rana as well, but then, she doesn't seem to hold a grudge at all.
- Fully-Clothed Nudity: Discussed and lampshaded. The nameless woman from Death of a Salesman who is in Willy's hotel room when Biff arrives is supposed to be half-naked. But due to Iranian censorship Kati, the actress playing the woman, has to wear a raincoat, while her character is talking about being almost naked. The actor playing Biff dissolves in laughter.
- The Ghost: Despite having a large impact on the story, the prostitute who rented the apartment before Emad and Rana never actually appears.
- Hollywood Heart Attack: The Old Man suffers this twice. He recovers from the first one, but the outcome of the second is up to the viewers' interpretation.
- Honor Before Reason: Emad quickly stops eating the macaroni Rana made after learning that she bought it using the money left by the attacker. Near the end, Emad even repays the money spent to the Old Man.
- Large Ham: In-Universe, the theatrical characters indulge in some scenery-chewing pleasures as required by the play. One particularly funny scene is when Sanam is conversing with Rana about her taking her son behind the props, alternating between a hammy voice and whisper while doing so.
- Leave the Camera Running: The home invasion scene, as detailed below.
- Nothing Is Scarier: The scene where Rana leaves the door open, which leads to the home invasion. The camera is left lingering for an uncomfortably long time as the audience is left wondering what would happen, then it abruptly cuts to Emad outside, entering the complex and seeing blood on the staircase leading to his room...
- Police Are Useless: Discussed by the Ebtisams' neighbor, who praises Rana for not reporting the incident to the authorities, because they would only ask her about countless trivial things, prolonging the investigation and spending so much stress and money without actually doing anything worthwhile. Whether this is actually true or not is unknown, since the characters opt not to contact the police.
- Red Herring: The previous owner's belongings, which get repeated mentions due to the owner's strict order for anyone not to touch them. They don't contribute anything, since the source of the conflict is not the owner, but her client.
- The Reveal: Majid is not Rana's attacker. His father-in-law is.
- Revenge Before Reason: Emad does his own little investigation to Rana's attacker, distancing himself from everyone else, despite the fact that all Rana wants is to move on.
- Show Within a Show: Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. The characters in the film wind up playing their character's roles in real life.
- Take That!: See Police Are Useless above.
- Thousand-Yard Stare: Since the home invasion, Rana frequently retreats to her world and does nothing more than just stare.
- Tragic Flaw: Emad has two. Both of them lead to the above Downer Ending. The first is self-absorption, focussing on his own wants and needs over his wife's, and the second is a particularly bad tendency to lash out at others in rage. The first destroys his marriage, the second causes him to potentially kill a man.
- Tragic Hero: Emad.
- Tragic Mistake: Whatever chance Emad had of saving his marriage disappeared the moment he demanded that Rana "stay out of this." This, in context, being his emotional torture of the Old Man while a horrified Rana, the victim, pleads with him stop since she has already forgiven him. That one line exposed Emad's selfishness and anger to everyone present, and his and Rana's marriage would never be the same again.
- The Unreveal:
- We never do really find out if the old man deliberately assaulted Rana, or if she jumped from fright after she saw him and smashed herself into the glass, as the old man claims.
- And we don't find out if the old man died of his heart attack, either.