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In ‘A Hero,’ Everyday Pressures of Iranian Society Make for a Twisty Saga

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A man sits, light hits one side of his face, other people in background
Amir Jadidi as Rahim in 'A Hero.' (© Amir Hossein Shojaei)

A Hero, Asghar Farhadi’s latest twisty, wrenching saga of everyday Iranians squeezed to the breaking point in the vise of conformity, begins with an image of pure joy: A beaming man, fresh out of prison, waving and running for a bus.

The bus doesn’t wait, though. So whatever inspired or cracked plan Rahim has devised to pay off a longstanding debt, abbreviate his jail sentence and begin a new life with the woman he loves is momentarily delayed by a fleeting, soon-forgotten act of casual indifference. Eighty years ago on a Warner Bros. soundstage, nightclub owner Rick Blaine mused that it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of a couple little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Same as it ever was, eh? Only Farhadi disagrees.

The Oscar-winning writer and director of A Separation and The Salesman is under no illusion that the circumscribed circumstances of everyday people can lead to change. But his continuing exploration of those constraints and conditions reflects a belief that prosaic subject matter can hold an audience’s attention. He’s absolutely right, not least because his situations and characters transcend borders.

Two men side on either side of a boy in an office
Still from ‘A Hero.’ (© Amir Hossein Shojaei)

A Hero (which shared the Grand Prix at Cannes last year) is typical Farhadi—talky, intricate and convoluted yet largely plausible—except that its protagonist is a working man (a sign painter-slash-calligrapher-slash-muralist) rather than an intellectual or aspiring member of the elite. Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is a schlemiel without the family wealth or contacts that would have extricated him from the loan he couldn’t repay when his small business failed.

Rahim has two days, all the leave he could get from prison, to set his repayment plan in motion, so every setback further fuels his desperation. A crucial, and confusing, component of his scheme involves a found purse of gold coins. Suffice to say that, as in all of Farhadi’s films, the law of unintended consequences derails his characters’ benign intentions, and events quickly slip out of their control. In this case, Rahim wins lavish praise and a job offer for being a good Samaritan.

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Fate is not the driving force, however, nor the culprit as the playing field tilts against Rahim. As our inadvertent hero careens around the city at the whim of functionaries, Farhadi conveys the everyday pressures of Iranian society. Sometimes subtly, with loudspeaker-amplified calls to prayer on the soundtrack or a blink-and-you-missed-it glimpse of a minaret atop a mosque at the beginning of a tracking shot. Often, though, it’s unmissable, from the way in which the brother of Rahim’s lady friend speaks to her to the absolute authority that a low-level bureaucrat wields.

What’s seemingly behind everyone’s behavior is an obsession with honor and reputation—how they are perceived by their neighbors and, presumably, by the absolute, unseen powers above—that is stronger even than the desire for happiness. The pressure to conform, to accept the directions of anyone who can affect your future, is palpable and pervasive.

A woman lifts a black headscarf and looks to the right
Sahar Goldoust as Farkhondeh in ‘A Hero.’ (© Amir Hossein Shojaei)

The pieces in A Hero don’t all click together as satisfyingly and devastatingly as they do in Farhadi’s best work. One of the film’s climactic scenes, for example, involves Rahim’s young son, who has a stutter, being asked (Farhadi’s films abound with small requests that no reasonable person could turn down, and which inevitably go south) to record a video to post on social media. It’s a painful sequence, not especially original, and one we could see coming for a while.

It’s also predictable that the scene would provide a major test for Rahim. Will he protect his son at this moment, or keep silent and preserve his prospects for a better tomorrow? Farhadi, who’s usually brilliant at avoiding both the clichés and easy emotions of melodrama, can’t write or direct his way out of this box.

In its way, though, this dovetails with the movie’s central theme. Boxes, fences, prisons—evoked in countless visual and unspoken ways in the course of A Hero—are a metaphor for the religious, political and societal strictures that confine Iranians. Rahim’s initial elation at two days of freedom was based on an illusion. Imagine the feeling when he realizes he was released into a larger prison.

‘A Hero’ opens Jan. 7 at the Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas (Berkeley), Rafael Film Center (San Rafael) and the Summerfield Cinemas 5 (Santa Rosa), and begins streaming Jan. 21 on Amazon Prime.

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