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A Hero

Acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi returns to his best with this Cannes Grand Prix-winner, which follows an imprisoned man, a lucky find and a good deed that doesn't go unpunished.
By Sarah Ward
June 09, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
June 09, 2022
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With apologies to Bonnie Tyler, cinema isn't holding out for a hero — and hasn't been for some time. The singer's 80s-era Footloose-soundtrack hit basically describes the state of mainstream movies today, filled as screens now are with strong, fast, sure and larger-than-life figures racing on thunder and rising on heat. But what does heroism truly mean beyond the spandex of pop-culture's biggest current force? Who do we hold up as role models, and as feel-good champions of kind and selfless deeds? How do those tales of IRL heroism ebb, flow and spread, too? Pondering this far beyond the caped-crusader realm is Asghar Farhadi, a two-time Oscar-winner thanks to A Separation and The Salesman. As is the acclaimed Iranian filmmaker's gambit, his latest movie is intricately complicated, as are its views on human nature and Iranian society.

As Farhadi has adored since 2003's Dancing in the Dust — and in everything from 2009's exceptional About Elly to his 2018 Spanish-language feature Everybody Knows as well — A Hero is steeped in the usual and the everyday. The 2021 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix-winner may start with a sight that's the absolute opposite thanks to necropolis Naqsh-e Rostam near the Iranian city of Shiraz, an imposingly grand site that includes the tombs of ancient Persian rulers Xerxes and Darius, but the writer/director's main concerns are as routine, recognisable and relatable as films get. One such obsession: domestic disharmony, aka the cracks that fracture the ties of blood, love and friendship. A Hero sprawls further thematically, wondering if genuine altruism — that is, really and wholeheartedly acting in someone else's interest, even at a cost to oneself — can ever actually exist. But it charts that path because of the frayed and thorny relationships it surveys, and the everyman caught within them.

When A Hero begins, calligrapher and sign painter Rahim Soltani (Amir Jadidi, Cold Sweat) is no one's saviour, victor or ideal. While he definitely isn't a villain, he's just been given a two-day pass from an Iranian debtor's prison, where he's incarcerated over a family financial feud. Owing 150,000,000 tomans to his ex-wife's brother-in-law, he's stuck serving out his sentence unless he can settle it or his creditor, copy shop owner Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh, Capital), agrees to forgive him. The latter is unlikely, so with his girlfriend Farkhondeh (debutant Sahar Goldust), Rahim hatches a repayment plan. She has stumbled across a handbag filled with 17 gold coins, and together they hope to sell it, then use the proceeds to secure his freedom — except, when they attempt to cash in, they're told that their haul won't reach anywhere the sum they need.

Instead, with a mixture of guilt and resignation — and at Farkhondeh's suggestion — Rahim decides to track down the coins' rightful owner. Cue signs plastered around the streets, then an immensely thankful phone call. Cue also the prison's higher-ups discovering Rahim's efforts, and wanting to cash in themselves by eagerly whipping up publicity around their model inmate's considerate choice. The media lap it up, as do the locals. Rahim's young son Siavash (newcomer Saleh Karimaei), a quiet boy with a stutter that's been cared for by his aunt Malileh (fellow first-timer Maryam Shahdaei), gets drawn into the chaos. A charity that fundraises to resolve prisoners' debts takes up the cause, too. Still, the stern and stubborn Bahram remains skeptical, especially as more fame and attention comes Rahim's way. Also, the kind of heroism that's fuelled via news reports and furthered by social media is fickle above all else, especially when competing information comes to light.

It's always been apt that Farhadi loves warm hues — tones that are even golden here, as lensed meticulously by cinematographers Ali Ghazi (Zero Day) and Arash Ramezani (Headless). His pictures are so intimate, and so engrained in homes and daily lives, that the cosy neutral colours that shade these spaces automatically become the director's own. His work is never about black-and-white situations, either, and his exacting search through a plethora of shades of grey is also never cold or calculating. A Hero uses the glow of its imagery to help offer plenty of questions about its underlying scenario, in fact, including who might be right and wrong within it. Of course, solving that binary battle is not the movie's aim; rather, poking, prodding and probing it, examining why we're so obsessed with heroes and villains, and exploring what that means when social media's moods, whims and affinities can turn in a second, flickers scorchingly at the film's core.

Also searing is Jadidi's performance, which couldn't be more complex. His smile charms, yet also has a flimsy tenor, the grin of someone who knows how embracing the world can be to him — and how closed. When the movie opens with Rahim making the difficult albeit spectacular climb up the Tomb of Xerxes to speak with his brother-in-law Hossein (Alireza Jahandideh, another debutant), who is working amid the scaffolding, it also immediately casts its protagonist as an ordinary man facing an insurmountable and age-old situation. Jadidi plays the part exactly that way, as someone striving to get by, grasping rare and unlikely chances with visible desperation, yet still bound by so much that's long proven unmovable about his country. His character is caught in a morality play where no good deed goes unpunished, too, and the weight of that truth ripples in his posture. But he's also the centre of a reckoning on what's worthy of praise and scorn — "where in the world are people celebrated for not doing wrong?" asks Bahram — and what that says about those cheering, condemning and flipping between the two.

The brilliantly layered premise, the deep and cutting dissection of Iran today, the devastating lead portrayal, the incisive visual gaze, the station-full of trains of thought set in motion: it's all classic Farhadi, and he has the applauded past flicks to prove it. Thankfully, A Hero also sees the writer/director back at his best; despite that wealth of familiar elements, the feature is never as oh-so-expected as Everybody Knows and The Salesman, both of which felt like the filmmaker on autopilot. Tough, tight, tenacious, and terrifically disdainful of opportunism and obstinance alike, and of people and institutions guilty of both, A Hero is an excavation of secrets and lies as well — but its power can't be hidden, and its emotional impact is as true as cinema gets. And, although almost everyone in its frames is indeed holding out for some style of hero, few movies realise how fraught and futile that is, let alone with the same patient but unshakeable feeling and intelligence. 

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