Monday 24 January 2022

Uneasy virtue: "A Hero"

Streaming an Asghar Farhadi film is like getting scripture off Twitter: it feels wrong somehow, a mismatch between the flimsiness of the delivery system and the complexity and gravity of the content involved. Yet that's where we are in 2022, and that's where Farhadi is with regard to getting his work in front of as many eyes as possible.
Everybody Knows, this director's first European-set feature, was a good film that didn't quite take off as its backers might have liked; for A Hero, Farhadi has returned to his native Iran while striking a deal with Amazon that will deliver the results around the world. The title of Farhadi's 2011 breakthrough A Separation was on the level: it summed up what the film described. A Hero is more slippery, speckled with irony; like its protagonist, it begs further investigation. Rahim (Amir Jahidi) is an at best unlikely hero: a charming swindler granted two-day leave from jail to pay off some of the substantial debt that saw him locked up in the first place. As is typical with Farhadi protagonists, he soon has his hands full. Aside from balancing the books - a task made trickier by the understandable, once-bitten-twice-shy recalcitrance of his creditor Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh) - Rahim has to spend these 48 hours rekindling a romantic relationship, steering his delinquent son back towards the path of righteousness, and dealing with relatives concerned he's more likely to use this furlough to drag the family name further into the mud. His quick fix for all these situations is to reunite a handbag that's fallen into his possession by shady means with its rightful owner, the better to paint a picture of himself as the kind of upstanding, reformed citizen who deserves to be discharged from prison full time, debt-free. At first, everyone makes the most of the resultant photo opportunity: "We have things to learn from you," the warden beams when Rahim returns to prison. We do, but they're not necessarily the lessons our boy's cheerleaders seem to think. We have things to find out about Rahim - and on that semantic wrinkle hangs the movie entire.

Once again, a Farhadi film proves entirely dependant for its effects on the close scrutiny of conflicted characters' actions: that's why you come this way, to watch the camera being quietly, assiduously trained on its subjects' consciences, like the lens on a microscope being lowered onto a slide. It's not the only camera in play here, either: shortly after Rahim's elevation to the pantheon of latter-day Iranian folk heroes, a TV crew shows up at the prison gates to make a documentary about his salutary altruism. The bind this guy finds himself in, however, is that the more of a public figure he becomes - and he's eventually offered a job in public office as a reward for his act - the more likely his virtue-signalling will be exposed as a sham. But is it a sham? For whatever reason, however long after the fact, Rahim did do the right thing at a pivotal moment - and for the bulk of the running time here, Farhadi invites us to weigh up the extent to which his quote-unquote hero merits a second chance. I'd say the lengths he goes to back up his story when it inevitably falls under question - enlisting everyone from his stuttering son to the taxi driver who picked up the bag's owner as character witnesses, to insist there's been no fraud, harm or foul - is just desperate enough to pass for heroic, and to make for properly involving and stimulating drama. Gradually, a thought forms: is Farhadi using actors to play out conversations we have online whenever fingers are pointed, accusations are made, and reputations are at stake? The second hour revolves around the recording and possible circulation of a damning video clip, yet even before then Farhadi appears to be using analogue resources to enact an ever more familiar snafu in the digital realm. Maybe streaming isn't such an inappropriate forum after all: you can try and cancel someone as the drama unfolds.

Such a quasi-experimental leap demands rocksolid technique, and there are few wobbles to be observed: again, we're drawn in by performers who barely seem to be performing, rather making the sort of choices (and negotiating the same ethical dilemmas) you and I are faced with every day, testimony to the good screenwriting and good casting that went on before a single frame of film was shot. Yet at this end of the line, A Hero does present as a little less rigorous than this director's very best films - or it may be that the stakes have been reduced somewhat. The drama here is never as life-and-death as it was in A Separation, The Salesman or Everybody Knows; it might only feel life-and-death to its characters, as such petty squabbles do whenever you're caught up in them on Twitter. (As ever, the solution to that is to unplug, step away from your laptop and stick your head out the window: for better and worse, nobody much cares in the real world.) The tone seems lighter, suggesting this might just be the closest Farhadi has made to a social satire along the lines of a Hail the Conquering Hero or Jim Cummings' recent The Beta Test (with which A Hero would make an apt double-bill): as the situation spirals, it becomes faintly absurd, pulling in even neutral observers who surely have better ways of spending their time. (And once more demonstrating Farhadi's sure handling of ensemble casts.) Occasionally, the dialogue reaches out to connect with the wider political sphere, as when Bahram sniffs "they big you up to make this country look a paradise" - an unusually jolting line, in that it suggests Rahim is becoming as much a semiotic signifier as, say, Captain Tom, someone over whom rival factions can wrestle. Mostly, it's a small yet appreciably well-turned parable of exactly that image management we all find ourselves involved in from time to time - that hall-of-mirrors ratrun in which even those of us still trying to do the right thing have cause to wonder whether we're doing it so as to do the right thing, or because it's now more important to be seen doing the right thing.

A Hero is showing at the Ciné Lumière and Peckhamplex in London, and is also available to stream via Prime Video.

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