Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Farhadi’s A Hero

Sometimes, Iran's Islamist regime is described as Medieval, but there is also a bizarrely Victorian aspect to the social structures they gave rise to. For instance, creditors can essentially consign their defaulters to debtors’ prison. Such a fate is a terrible disgrace in a society that demands the perception of virtue, if not the actuality. Rahim Soltani hatches an unlikely scheme to free himself and rehabilitate his name, but complications quickly ensue in Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero, Iran’s international Oscar submission, which premieres this Friday on Amazon Prime.

Soltani owes 75K to Bahram and he has no prospects of repaying him, since his former business partner absconded with their funds. Therefore, he must serve a multi-year sentence that gains Bahram nothing but retribution. Briefly, Soltani believes his problems are solved when his girlfriend Farkhondeh finds a purse with several precious coins on the street, but their hopes are dashed by a precipitous decline in the price of gold.

Pivoting during his two-day furlough, they craft a social media scheme, wherein Soltani rebuilds his social virtue by claiming to find the coins himself and making a show of returning them to their supposedly rightful owner, who would in fact be the role-playing Farkondeh. Initially, the plan is a smashing success, winning over the prison officials and a rehabilitation charity. However, Bahram is unconvinced. As the creditor resists the chorus asking for his pardon, others start chipping away at the holes and inconsistencies in Soltani’s story. The whole affair turns into a big mess, in which many of the players share some culpability, but Soltani is the one who really stands to lose.

Like all truly grand tragedies, we can see how one agonizing thing will inevitably lead to another, until poor Soltani will be completely buried under his own schemes and deceptions. Yet, we can also almost see him wriggling out, which is a source of genuine suspense. At one point, a character tells Soltani he is either a complete simpleton or a calculating genius—and that is a perfectly apt description of him.

Amir Jadidi is riveting as Soltani. It is a nuanced performance that never whitewashes the debtor’s shortcomings and failings, but his desperation is immediately palpable and completely understandable. In fact, the entire ensemble is perfectly cast and wholly engaging. They all do the kind of work that makes you forget you are watching a work of fiction and start responding like it is a real-life documentary. Yet, Mohsen Tanabandeh is notable for the way he humanizes Bahram, who so resents Soltani, because his default cost him his daughter’s dowry (another rather Victorian practice).

Indeed, Iranian social conventions never do the women characters any favors. The entire system of justice seems perversely calibrated to maximize strife between citizens. Nevertheless, Farhadi manages to adroitly walk a tightrope that avoids any explicitly political commentary, while holding up a critical mirror to the society around him. It is neat trick that is all the more impressive for the way his has continued to pull it off, film after film. However, eventually he might have to take an unequivocal stand, like his colleagues Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof have been so much more willing to do—or maybe he can just maintain the delicate balance he started with
Fireworks, Wednesday. Regardless, A Hero is another masterful film from one of the world’s leading filmmakers. Highly recommended, A Hero starts streaming this Friday (1/21) on Amazon Prime.