Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jan 15, 2022 9:12 pm 
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A man tries too hard to be good in Farhadi's new movie

I pointed out in connection with Mohammad Rasoulof's 2020 film There Is No Evil that in modern Iran justice comes from another century: the death penalty is imposed for homosexuality, fornication, political dissidence and arson. It's hardly surprising therefore to learn from Asghar Farhadi's ironically entitled new film A Hero that people in Iran are still jailed there for unpaid debts. So we encounter the "crestfallen charm" (as The New Yorker's Anthony Lane calls it) of Farhadi's new protagonist, Rahim Soltani (Amir Jadidi) - a debtor on leave from prison for a couple of days a couple of times who in the opening sequence climbs a network of many stairs up an ancient site near the city of Shiraz (it is none other than the tomb of Xerxes, who ruled two and a half millennia ago) to have tea with his brother-in-law Hossein (Alireza Jahandideh). This would seem to be Rahim's first step in navigating a way out of his financial troubles. There is a lot of tea in this movie (served in glasses) and also a lot of Farsi in Arabic writing, pertly maybe because Rahim is a calligrapher and sign maker by trade.

But there will just be a lot more trouble. I've also pointed out in connection with Farhadi's celebrated A Separation (NYFF 2011), that Iranians seem to delight in making things hard for each other. Specifically Iran's is "a culture in which everyone is quarrelsome and out of sorts, everyone finds fault with everyone else (with the exception of a few sacred parental and filial family relationships), and everyone lies." It's perhaps only a little surprising that when Rahim's second leave ends at the end of this film and he returns to prison things have only become much more complicated. Amir Jadidi, who plays Rahim, has a brilliant smile and an honest face, and Rahim is honest to a fault - so honest that he's honest about his occasional dishonesty. (And so he's not so honest after all.) This is a tangled story about moral complexity, the difficulty of making choices, and the way smart phones and social media can make a situation worse really fast.

To start a business Rahim borrowed money from a loan shark and then a relative paid it off, but his partner ran off with the money so he couldn't meet his obligation, and the relative put him in jail.

Though Rahim is more often unlucky or weak than dishonest, everybody in A Hero is dodgy. I'd say even the director is dodgy with us, that most of all; Farhadi doles out information, to use a phrase used here (the Farsi version of it) in dribs and drabs. Rahim has an ex-wife and a new love who's his son's speech therapist, because the boy, Slavash (Saleh Karimaei) has a stutter. (Did the role go to a real stutterer, I wonder, of is this a cunning facsimile?)

The big complication comes right at the start, when Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), Rahim's secret new squeeze and future wife (though he has a current one), finds a pocketbook containing 17 gold coins lost at a bus stop and offers it to him toward paying off his debut. He thinks he can use the found gold to restructure the debt, and work to finish paying if off. But cashing out the coins does't go well; so he decides instead to advertise for the coins' owner and return them. The lady who appears to claim them, not surprisingly, later comes to seem suspicious. Now Rahim gets credit for a good deed that is widely celebrated. For the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, he is a much discussed figure on television and social media. But then when he is honest enough to admit that he was originally not going to return the coins but use them for his own debt, and that moreover it was not he who originally found them and has allowed it to seem that he did, he looks less admirable. Or is he doubly admirable for also owning up to these dishonesties?

Rahim's fortunes fluctuate in the public sphere. In the private one, they get no better. His creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), is related to him by marriage, but that doesn't make him friendly. Bahram is as unforgiving as Shakespeare's Shylock. And Lane justifiably links Farhadi's tale to Shakespeare as well Dickens and the Arabian NIghts. What's peculiar to Farhadi, though the action is faster this time than in A Separation awith its warring points of view nd largely restricted to Rahim's eyes, is how completely the director's every scene is rooted in quotidian detail. Here the intricacies of moral choices show that, however devious Iranians often are, they do care about doing the right thing - as well as being given credit for doing so.

Hence Rahim's complaisant pleasure (his easy smile coming to seem a little weak now) in accepting a framed testimonial and appearing at a fund-raiser celebrating his honesty about the coins. And hence our sympathy when he gets into a fracas with the mean Bahram in the latter's tiny copy shop, and our lack of real surprise when the impeccable-seeming older woman who runs a charitable organization is willing to reroute the funds they've collected for Rahim when his reputation publicly falters (helped by social media) - and willing also to release or withhold new information as she sees fit.

When a society holds a public event to celebrate somebody's act of honesty it's fair to say that's because these are people who're often dishonest. By the same token being that way, they easily start to suspect the "hero" they're been celebrating isn't a real one. It's a wonderfully twisty world, with very old fashioned behavior sitting side by side with social media and the instant videos to publish there, or blackmail someone by threatening to.

The only trouble here is that there is so little resolution. But as Lane puts it, Farhadi "patiently cranks up the moral suspense until we can barely breathe." Except for a few dead moments in an anti-room with glaring light from outside, I did barely breathe, and what rarely happens, I forgot I was wearing a mask, or rather, its discomfort came to seem only natural. Farhadi still shows his ability to make the quotidian trials and moral dilemmas of ordinary life rise almost to the intensity of a thriller. But this time those details seem to have gotten the better of him.

At the end as Rahim returns to prison, seen off by his son and Farkhondeh, he has a newly-minted look. He is shaven-headed and his beard is gone, all but a neat mustache. But this freshness isn't altogether convincing. He's still a man in debt without a job. We know he is upright and well-meaning, but we also know that's a stance he has trouble maintaining sometimes. This new film isn't really satisfying, but maybe it isn't meant to be. Is it, as some think, partly a farce? Or is it only a convoluted bad trip? There's a hypertrophied brilliance in the multiplying of tangled moral complexities. But part of me agrees with Peter Bradshaw's parting shot in his Cannes Guardian review to wonder if the film's "realist mannerisms are concealing a slightly unfocused story." His review title is an even stronger warning to audiences - I would not go that far - to say that it may be "just too messy and unsatisfactory." More accurate is the criticism of Owen Gleiberman, whose Variety review provides the most complete description of this film, that the weakness of Farhadi's structure here is simply that it is "repetitive more than it is developmental."

Asghar Farhadi is a filmmaker with a wonderful gift for detail, but the danger is that he cam get lost in it. The detail is great here, but this isn't his best work.

A Hero قهرمان ("Ghahreman"), 127 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes Jul. 13, 2021, winning the Grand Prix and the François Chalais ("life affirmation") Award. Shown at over two dozen other international festivals including Telluride, Toronto, Zurich, Busan, Melbourne, Montreal, the Hamptons, London and Miami. US early release Nov. 12, 2021 in New York and Los Angeles. Limited US release Jan. 7, 2022. Internet release Jan. 21, 2022. Screened at Landmark's Albany Twin in Albany, CA Jan. 15, 2022. Metacritic rating: 81%.

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