A Hero is Farhadi’s best work in a minute, still hampered by the director’s anonymous formal style, but otherwise delivering another masterful work of drama.
Few non-English language directors have ever enjoyed the hype bestowed upon Asghar Farhadi by American film media circa 2011, a seemingly ubiquitous push in response to the release of his still most prominent feature film, A Separation. Somewhat perplexing considering the aesthetic uniformity shared between that film and the rest of Farhadi’s filmography, A Separation nevertheless set off an otherwise deserved fascination with the Iranian filmmaker’s work amongst Western audiences that has kept him a mainstay throughout the subsequent decade. Indeed, give or take 2018’s Everybody Knows (his first Spanish-language venture), Farhadi’s popularity hasn’t waned tremendously, especially at Cannes where he took home last year’s Grand Prix (shared with Finnish film Compartment No. 6), and amongst Academy voters who have given him two Foreign Language Film Oscars and have his latest shortlisted to compete for another.
Now making its way onto Amazon’s streaming service after spending two weeks in theaters, A Hero, Farhadi’s ninth feature, proves itself as dramatically irresistible as anything else in his filmography while maintaining this filmmaker’s frustrating disinterest in cultivating any sort of notable formal style. Returning to Iran after the Spain-set Everybody Knows, A Hero once again indulges Farhadi’s penchant for entangling classical drama with contemporary social realism in the pursuit of interrogating ethical dilemma. Favoring a screenwriting process that works backwards from theme, saving plotting for the end, Farhadi’s scripts are distinctively taught and thoughtfully balanced, the moral conflicts at their center carefully orchestrated so as to keep every party in doubt, the implications of his premises explored in every direction. He’s also quite adept at crafting scenario that bears the weight of universality/timelessness and contemporary concern equally — A Hero no different in these regards. Playing out like an Ibsen drama in modern day Shiraz, the film centers around Rahim (Amir Jadidi), who, while on a two-day leave from debtor’s jail, suddenly finds himself a divisive media sensation, the result of a much publicized “good Samaritan” act that will be questioned and re-interrogated for the movie’s duration. A perpetually luckless divorced father of a sad, stuttering child (one of the more dubious screenwriting overreaches of Farhadi’s career), Rahim takes his leave with the intent of mending his relationship with the creditor/ex-brother-in-law who had him incarcerated over a substantial, unpaid business loan, only to find the man to be entirely unyielding. In an unexpected twist of fate, Rahim’s girlfriend (an employee of the prison) finds a bag of gold coins that the couple initially offer as payment toward his debtholder, though they ultimately rescind the offer, opting instead to locate the rightful owner. Eventually located and reunited with her coins, Rahim no longer has immediate financial means to exit incarceration, but he suddenly has publicity, egged on by the prison managers who may have their own ulterior motives for helping to draw attention to this supposed act of altruism. Taking advantage of an extended leave and this newfound local celebrity, Farhadi’s hero attempts to leverage the public’s good will against his ex-brother-in-law so as to reclaim his freedom, but soon learns how quickly the media apparatus shifts its loyalties.
Fiery, yet delicately constructed, there’s great pleasure in experiencing Farhadi’s dramas unfold, and A Hero offers his most accomplished in some time, craftily spinning significant, life-altering discord out of particular dialogue phrasings and omissions, characters’ verbal and body language allowed credible impact on the larger production. But alas, that larger production isn’t offering much else, assuredly carried by the superlative screenplay and weighty performances, but content with perfunctory camerawork (handheld digital, lots of close-ups, loose compositions) that seems to purposefully evade stylishness. Though not a new frustration with Farhadi, it’s one that continues to aggravate the longer his filmography gets, and certainly holds his films back from being unequivocal masterpieces. Still, it’s something of a blessing that we have a current-day filmmaker working so effectively in this dramatic register, his writing comparable to the canonical playwrights he often homages. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, one simply wishes that he might someday take his craft the rest of the way.
You can stream Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero on Amazon Prime Video beginning on January 21.