A Hero. PG, 127 minutes. Four stars.
A new film from Asghar Farhadi will never now go unnoticed. Not since he won a best foreign language Oscar for his riveting drama The Separation, about a young couple splitting up, and then a second for The Salesman, about the impossibility of ignoring certain truths. These Academy Awards have placed this filmmaker in elite company.
As a creative in a complex and perplexing country, Farhadi offers subtle and tantalising detail on his homeland, Iran. While his dramas with titles like A Separation, The Salesman, The Past, and now A Hero gesture broadly, they in fact offer miniatures of relationships, between individuals, families and communities that are firmly located in the present.
At the outset, after being released for a brief spell from prison, our hero, Rahim (Amir Jadidi) takes a bus ride to an archaeological site, the tombs of Xerxes and Darius, near the ancient imperial city of Persepolis not far from Shiraz in south-western Iran. At the top of a flight of stairs of exterior scaffolding, Rahim locates his brother-in-law, Hossein (Alireza Jahandideh), who is restoring the tomb of Xerxes.
Xerxes the Great and his father Darius before him ruled the Persian empire at its height. It cannot be without some irony that a film called A Hero, about a signwriter and calligrapher who is a prison inmate though not a bad man, is set at such hallowed ground.
Rahim is one of life's bumblers, a somewhat passive personality with an apologetic, ever-present smile. Trying to scrounge funds that will prevent his return to prison is no hanging offence, but he also must face up to his responsibilities. Jadidi is excellent as a rather ineffectual man with, some would say, a hangdog expression.
Rahim's two-day release was unexpected, or was it? He already has a plan underway to make his freedom permanent. His girlfriend, Farkondeh (Sahar Goldust), has found a bag with 17 gold coins inside, still unclaimed, but it is clear that the path ahead is far from straightforward.
Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), in particular, stands in his way. He is an angry, dark presence behind a thick beard, whose world view inclines him to want to ascribe the worst motives to the actions of others. Understandably, Bahram wants either the full amount that Rahim owes, the 150,000 tomans, reimbursed, or a rock-solid guarantee that it will be. The 70,000 tomans that Farkondeh and Rahim have obtained from pawning the gold coins only go so far. And on it goes.
Rahim attempts a different strategy, by which he briefly enjoys the status of local hero as the honest man who returned gold coins to their rightful owner. It brings him a social media presence but prompts Bahram to ask where else in the world people would be celebrated simply for not doing wrong. The administration at Rahim's prison and a charity also become involved on behalf of the selfless inmate, adding layers of complexity to an already byzantine plot.
Scenes of single dad Rahim wandering through the streets of Shiraz with his young son (Saleh Karimaei) underscore their plight in a harsh environment outside caring family. Farhadi's meaning in situating his petty drama in contemporary Shiraz, one of the oldest cities of ancient Iran and a heartland of poetry and other Persian literature, isn't necessarily explicit, but it is suggestive.
Also suggestive is the comment from a taxi driver who gives Rahim a free lift. Exasperated by the lack of compassion shown by a human resources manager interviewing Rahim for a job, the driver retorts that he pities the country that has guys like him in charge.
An elaborate web of familial and community relations and a strong sense of place in and around Shiraz lend a wider significance to the plight of a man unable to be a father to his troubled, stuttering son, or a partner to his devoted girlfriend, not getting any younger.
A Hero has been criticised for its complexity but I think it demonstrates how Rahim's rehabilitation can only be achieved when everything is in alignment.
If the authenticity of Farhadi's script remains in dispute, as has been reported, A Hero offers all the hallmarks of detail, subtlety and complexity for which the filmmaker is so justly celebrated.
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