CANNES, France – Ethics and civility are not synonymous with honor but it’s generally understood, by most, that if you adhere to an ethical and civil conduct in life, honor will naturally flow from it. The idea of honor endures more or less overtly in Iranian society, and Asghar Farhadi’s new film “A Hero” thrives on it as leitmotif. The honor of one man, a painter calligrapher, crushed by debt after a business venture goes south. The honor of those around him, too, and of the woman he loves, whom he has yet to marry.
Although there was a misfire in Farhadi’s career (the instantly-forgettable “Everybody Knows”—yet further proof, as if it was needed, that international filmmakers don’t always travel well) it would be hard to fault Farhadi for not doing moviemaking really right. Plot, structure, the sharp gaze of the director, that undefinable space which his ensemble casts occupy and in which so much happens. His films are intensely psychological and rigorous and clever. “About Elly,” “A Separation,” highlights of a blazing career, the Iranian filmmaker, born in 1974, has his place in the pantheon, next to Kimiaii, Kiarostami and Panahi the elder.
The plot of his “Hero” is intense with twists and turns but in a predictable way. Either the main character Rahim (Amir Jadidi, who’s just gained some serious visibility on the international film stage with this film, having acted in a spate of films destined for the Iranian market) is either a dunce not well-versed in the ways of the world or the total desperation that affects him leads him to make a series of catastrophic decisions that will have repercussions on his community. Preserving your honor is a must, especially in the lower rungs of Iranian society, but pragmatism and a keen sense of one’s own vulnerability would’ve been nobler pursuits. Rahim, at times wearing a stupid smile, at others a scowl, isn’t the man to face these ambiguities, and I can’t decide whether it’s because the role wasn’t written well or because Jadidi was miscast for the role.
Fairly quickly after Rahim leaves jail on a furlough (he was there because of unpaid debt) he comes up with what will turn out to be a scheme to mend his reputation, damaged by the jail sentence and the indebtedness which caused it. A lady’s purse is found, containing gold coins. Rahim, a calligrapher, will seize on an opportunity. He’s handed the bag and at first he tries to sell the coins to settle the unpaid debt that got him imprisoned. But he has a change of heart. There’s an opportunity to not only clear his honor but also to become a hero, by making everyone believe that he, a convict, returned a handbag full of gold coins to its rightful owner. Before long TV interviews and reenactments follow and a redeeming of sorts seems possible.
Farhadi owns his movie from beginning to end, when things are improving for Rahim and when they are unraveling, the directing is without compare, in the complex narrative environment of he-said she-said, shenanigans and intrigues, he never lets any element of the action get away from under him.
The filmmaker counts on us to run with the story of Rahim and his increasingly desperate attempts to save his honor, that of his family, his future wife, the person who guaranteed the loan and who had to ante up after the former didn’t meet his obligations and a charitable organization who got behind Rahim, and we do—for a while. But the shenanigans, with the help of videos being recorded, a “morality officer” putting pressure on Rahim before he can hope to apply for a new job to prove that he really did do a good deed with his incessant demands for proof and witnesses, are desperate and seem increasingly unlikely, at least to a foreigner. You start to wonder, what is Rahim’s major malfunction? Has he never heard of ‘quit while you’re ahead?’ Is this a cultural thing? I’m an Iranian but I was born and raised in the West so I don’t really get it.
And although the concept of honor, front and center in “A Hero,” does seem like much ado about nothing, it’s all the same, “Hero” glides on such narrative efficiency that one cannot help but bow to the power of the demonstration.