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- Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
In the ten years since A Separation won Asghar Farhadi a Golden Bear, an Oscar and a fixed place on the international auteur A-list, his subsequent work has at once shored up his reputation – as cinema’s preeminent author of the classically sculpted moral drama – and followed an arc of gradually diminishing returns. After the wildly out-of-his-element dud that was 2018’s Spanish melodrama Everybody Knows, it’s only faint praise to say that his new film A Hero reverses the slide.
Better news is that it returns the filmmaker to a place of storytelling authority and conviction. Set in the Iranian city of Shiraz, this rippling study of a debt-ridden single father attempting to save himself through an act of performative samaritanship benefits from an intimate, engrained knowledge of the social and economic systems under scrutiny: there’s a particularity to its domino-fall of consequences that doesn’t just gesture airily at universal ethics.
Just as A Separation’s riveting anatomy of a divorce was tilted by local law and etiquette, A Hero’s fable of self-canonisation – Iranian style – feels like it could play out a hundred different ways in a hundred different places, even as it’s pushed and pulled by the globally topical factors of social media warfare and fake news.
Yet there’s something curiously uninvolving about A Hero, a passivity to its point of view that goes beyond Farhadi’s usual avoidance of moral partisanship. After the more heated genre experiments of The Salesman and Everybody Knows, the director appears determined this time to maintain a respectful distance from the onscreen turmoil he has created. That extends to a locked, tightly internalised lead performance by Amir Jadidi, whose matinee-idol looks and frequent, faintly anxious smile tend not to betray his character’s clashing inner currents of rage, desperation and paranoia, until they boil over into violent physical action.
He plays Rahim, a would-be entrepreneur whose plans for self-realisation are, as the film begins, cruelly pinned down by laws and numbers. He’s in the midst of serving a three-year prison sentence for an unpaid debt of 150,000 tomans; his hard-headed creditor Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh) is also his former brother-in-law, whose grudges against Rahim are densely compacted and weaponised. Rahim’s financial woes are agonisingly entangled in family business: small wonder he does his level best to keep his girlfriend Farkhondeh (Saha Goldust) a secret from the clan.
That’s one plan among many that goes awry when Rahim is granted a two-day leave from prison and immediately receives a hefty windfall: Farkhondeh stumbles upon a woman’s handbag containing 17 gold coins. Her initial idea, to sell them, wouldn’t yield enough money to clear the debt, so he hatches a more contrived, cynical scheme: launch a public campaign to return the bag to its rightful owner and count on the ensuing publicity to clean up his reputation. If this sounds akin to a vintage screwball premise, Farhadi makes it quite plausible as a dry satire of a national media starved for old-fashioned feelgood narratives – not to mention a prison system in need of an image glow-up.
It works to an extent that catches even Rahim off guard: a woman comes forward, TV and newspaper coverage ensues and a local charity invites donations to get this sainted prisoner’s life back on track.
When it goes wrong, this being a Farhadi drama, it does so intricately, first slowly and then all at once. In scene after scene of pleas and negotiations in airless, yellowed offices, lives are damned or spared in measured tones at moderate volume; social media takes a louder view of the situation, though Farhadi steers clear of garish onscreen presentations of life online. Against the rising human stakes of the story, his filmmaking remains unexcitable, trading in staid, beige compositions and largely sacrificing music for the constant, uncaring whir of passing traffic.
When civility finally cracks and hands are raised in anger, the viewer breathes, though it doesn’t do much for Rahim’s bleak plight. It’s a broadly sympathetic film, though A Hero doesn’t overly prod its audience into deep feeling for him.
In some ways, even, Farhadi seems to be testing us. Some of the film’s sharpest, ugliest emotions pivot on the figure of Rahim’s pre-teen son, a vulnerable boy with a debilitating speech impediment; against the urging of his advisers, Rahim is increasingly loath to use a child’s disability to get the public invested in his cause. Whether the otherwise stern, stoic A Hero is guilty of doing the very same thing is among its enfolded ambiguities.
Everybody Knows first look: the bells toll for another of Asghar Farhadi’s fissured families
The Iranian director’s sojourn to Spanish wine country marks a change of scene if not of tack, with Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem leading a starry clockwork family whodunnit, says Nick James.
By Nick James
Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy