Even as Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi layers his films with complexity — with characters whose intimacies are crowded by politics, society and the past — his command of narrative is utterly total. You get the impression he could direct his way out of any labyrinth, that his camera — cool and composed — could travel through a briar patch without so much as a scratch.
His latest, the Oscar-nominated "The Salesman," may not quite reach the heights of his best ("About Elly," the Academy Award-winning "A Separation"). But nothing in it will dissuade you from the feeling that you're in the hands of one of the finest filmmakers on the planet: a neorealist Hitchcock whose thrillers, just as finely plotted, accrue a suspenseful force without a melodramatic score or pointed close-ups but through the accumulation of naturalistic detail.
Early in "The Salesman," a Tehran apartment building hurriedly evacuates when cracks caused by neighboring construction shoot up its walls and windows. It's an early sign of the fissures that will — as they often do in a Farhadi film — drive through the domestic lives of its characters: a young couple named Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (the tremendous Taraneh Alidoosti, who also starred in "About Elly").
Turned out from their apartment, a friend finds them a new one where one room is still filled with the possessions of the previous tenant, a young woman. Both Emad (a teacher) and Rana are starring in a production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." Their neighbors, wary of the last occupant's carousing, are assured the new tenants are safer bets. "They're in culture," the friend says.
The play, bits of which we see performed, echoes through Farhadi's film in sometimes parallel, sometimes incongruous ways. Its classical drama is in stark contrast to the messier lives off stage. And its cultural connections can be strained. Rehearsing one scene, Rana wears a hijab when she's supposed to be naked, causing a co-star to break into laughter.
But Miller's themes of masculine shame and humiliation course throughout "The Salesman." When Emad runs out one evening from their new apartment, Rana is assaulted while taking a shower after leaving the door ajar for her husband.
The incident leaves her bloodied and too shaken to talk about it. And in Iranian society, her ability to be frank about the encounter is limited. Before fleeing, the assailant mistook her for the (never seen) previous tenant, "a woman with a lot of acquaintances." Fearful of having to describe the attack, which Farhadi shows only indirectly, she refuses to go to the police. A neighbor suggests she would have her own questions to answer if she did.
Farhadi (who has worked in theater, himself) is playing with the societal roles that confine his characters, boxing them into their own private tragedies. Emad, increasingly enraged, hunts down the attacker who in his haste to escape leaves his car behind.
Eventually, "The Salesman" brings forth its own Willy Loman, a humble, elderly and guilt-ridden salesman played by an excellent Farid Sajjadi Hosseini. The steadily simmering drama leads to a chilling, protracted confrontation. As Farhadi's morality tale unwinds, though, our allegiances and sympathies bounce from one character to another.
Farhadi's previous film was the French-language "The Past," with Berenice Bejo as a Paris single-mother visited by an ex-husband. It proved his talent for mysterious, complex relationships wasn't limited to his homeland but could be conjured in any home. But "The Past" also, with its overcooked succession of reveals, showed his weakness for overly schematic plotting.
That's a flaw in "The Salesman," too, with its sometimes forced refractions of Miller's play. But Farhadi remains a master not just of narrative but of empathy. He's a war correspondent constantly shifting perspective in clandestine battles.
"The Salesman," an Amazon Studios/Cohen Media Group release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "mature thematic elements and a brief bloody image." Running time: 125 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP