Moral Arguments | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
DONATE
Support the Free Press.
Facts matter. Truth matters. Journalism matters.
Salt Lake City Weekly has been Utah's source of independent news and in-depth journalism since 1984.
Donate today to ensure the legacy continues.

Culture » Film Reviews

Moral Arguments

Asghar Farhadi again digs brilliantly into complex choices in A Hero.

By

comment
AMAZON STUDIOS
  • Amazon Studios
4.jpg

If you're not acquainted with the filmography of Asghar Farhadi, you're missing out on the work of the most gifted moral dramatist of the 21st century. In masterpieces like About Elly and A Separation, and even in relatively "minor" works—meaning only great rather than transcendent—like The Salesman, Farhadi has plumbed the psychology behind choices that seem indefensible to those of us in the audience, yet perfectly reasonable to the characters he's written. His are portraits of the way cultural and institutional norms can get in the way of doing the right thing—or even stopping to consider what "the right thing" might actually be.

A Hero considers that notion in a much more public context, one that feels profoundly relevant to a time when people toss around phrases like "performative" goodness. It's a complex story of broken systems and broken individuals, and the potential cost of doing "the right thing" that nobody will ever know about.

Farhadi's protagonist is Rahim Soltani (Amir Jadidi), a man who is serving time in an Iranian prison for his inability to repay a debt. He is granted a short leave, however, for the possibility of arranging repayment with his creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), after the divorced Rahim's girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust) finds a purse filled with gold coins. When the value of those coins turns out to be insufficient to pay off the full debt, Rahim has second thoughts about keeping the coins, and attempts to find the owner of the lost purse—turning him into a media darling for his selfless act.

In another filmmaker's version of this story, it would turn into an all-out farce, built on Rahim's initially reluctant status as role model after the story gets out of his control. For Farhadi, however, it's an opportunity to explore the messy, indistinct lines between real goodness and perceived goodness. The prison administration initially tries to piggyback on Rahim's story, hoping he can provide a little public-relations boost; a charity organization raises money for him based on its understanding of his behavior, then backtracks as soon as inconsistencies in his story threaten to tarnish their image. Every decision has a ripple effect, and everybody seems far less interested in what Rahim actually did than in how it might reflect on them.

At the center of it all is Jadidi's performance as Rahim, and Farhadi is such an accomplished writer than he often doesn't get enough credit for how he guides performances. Rahim's demeanor initially seems like that of a put-upon sadsack, saddled with debt as the result of a failed business but not a "bad guy" despite having his indebtedness criminalized. Yet he becomes increasingly agitated throughout the twists and turns of his story, losing control of himself over Bahram's bitter refusal to cut Rahim any slack—a bitterness that makes sense given what we learn about the impact on Bahram's own family of being the signatory on Rahim's loan. That desperate, pathetic quality being transformed into violence feels like a microcosm of incarceration creating criminals, and Jadidi's fascinating portrayal captures that transformation with tragic beauty.

And just as he's not given enough credit as a director of actors, Farhadi isn't given enough credit as a visual stylist, simply because his career has its roots in theater. There's a great juxtaposition in two early sequences, one which shows Rahim gruelingly ascending the scaffolding stairs at a construction site, compared to Farkhondeh descending stairs in a series of sharp, quick cuts, emphasizing the relative difficulty of their respective situations. Then there's the final shot—a long take much like the one that ends A Separation—which provides a similar emphasis on what Rahim's situation is taking away from him, building a sense of heartbreak.

That final shot is predicated on another moral choice Rahim faces, one involving his young son Siavash, who has a speech impediment. While the character might easily have been used for bathos, he becomes the pivot point for whether or not Rahim will do the thing that might present him in the most sympathetic light to the world, even though he knows it causes an unseen pain. A quote generally attributed to basketball coach John Wooden says "character is what you are when no one's watching;" like so many of Asghar Farhadi's works, A Hero lets us be the one who's watching.