Thickly but masterfully plotted, the remarkably consistent films of Asgar Farhadi follow parallel lines: morals vs. morals and, more provocatively, morals vs. ethics. If moral clashes debate right and wrong, then we can look at ethics as the power plays dramatizing stubbornly opposed views of what’s right.
Farhadi’s latest, “A Hero,” centers on that second debate. It boasts the filmmaker’s usual high level of unassuming craft; a superb cast; and a couple of limitations, though not flaws, worth noting. The film, a two-hour exercise in simmering anxiety and the slow fuse of a big little lie, makes its streaming premiere Jan. 21 on Amazon Prime, while continuing its limited theatrical run in the Chicago area.
The setting is the Iranian city of Shiraz. There, Rahim, played by Amir Jadidi with an air of serene resignation, has been jailed in debtors’ prison. The scowling creditor controlling his fate helped Rahim start a business — he’s a calligrapher and painter by trade — but he wants his loans repaid. Rahim needs money, quickly, in order to buy his way out of prison and settle the debts while on a two-day pass.
The money he needs pops into the story as a kind of street-level miracle. His clandestine girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahir Goldoust), finds a handbag full of gold coins, left behind at a bus stop. At first she and Rahim plan to pawn the coins. Then, instead, Rahim’s ethical impulse takes the lead and the money is returned to its rightful if furtive owner. Rahim becomes a media hero, and a model prisoner for his prison overseers.
But fate, various forms of Iranian bureaucracy and simmering grudges, reroute Rahim’s sudden celebrity. Like all Farhadi’s work, “A Hero” operates as a calmly agonizing procedural, where one evasion or deception naturally squirms into the form of another, and another. There are some new elements in Farhadi’s focus here: the role of social media in ordinary lives, for one, and — visually — some conspicuous change-ups in the cutting of some sequences and montages.
The limitations of “A Hero” have to do with a tendency present in this writer-director’s earlier efforts, ranging from good to excellent. His movies are dominoes, falling — models of solid dramatic progression, in the dramatic tradition of Ibsen and Arthur Miller. After “A Separation” (2012), Farhadi won his second Oscar for “A Salesman,” in which an Iranian theater production of Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” mirrored the offstage ethical dilemmas of its actors. Farhadi’s finest work approaches “Salesman” level ambiguity; his second-tier films are more like Miller’s “All My Sons,” with their step-by-step, more easily diagramed tragedy. “A Hero” is second tier, with this crucial caveat: Farhadi’s second tier is like most filmmakers’ first.
The cast is perfect throughout, blending pros and amateurs. Jadidi is playing a fundamentally passive man, which means we know he will blow at dramatically strategic points in “A Hero.” It is not easy to play such a character, at least in between the explosions; with his ambiguous countenance, and minute physicalization of a hangdog psyche, Jadidi keeps everything on track. What lends Farhadi’s latest picture its chaotic vitality are the domestic scenes, in the home of Rahim’s sister (Maryam Shahdaei, always scolding her brother about his “unworthy” cigarette habit). In these scenes we sense life as it’s lived in contemporary Iran, and everywhere.
That life is shadowed by doubt, fear, economic uncertainty and a million small moral and ethical questions. Those are what “A Hero” explores, while balancing our sympathies toward what these people are going through.
“A Hero” — 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and language)
Running time: 2:07
How to watch: Now in theaters, at the Gene Siskel Film Center; Lake Theatre in Oak Park; and Marcus Gurnee. Amazon Prime streaming premiere Jan. 21.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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