A Hero Ashgar Farhadi (2021;Iran) Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabandeh, Sahar Godoost
viewed Tyneside Cinema 11 Jan 2022; ticket: £10.75
What’s in a look?
There is one moment in Farhadi’s ‘A Hero’ that transfixed me. Protagonist Rahim goes to the bazaar to see the shopkeeper (who runs a photocopying business) to whom he is in debt. He is trying unsuccessfully to sort out the deteriorating situation between them. The man is not there, but his daughter is. In wide shot she spies Rahim lurking outside the shop, turns her head to stare him straight in the face; her eyes fix upon him a look of contemptuous venom, pure refined hatred. As target of this withering assault Rahim psychically crumples, his knees buckle, broken he stumbles off removes himself from the line of fire. He gets the message.
Farhadi’s film like his previous movies produced in Iran, ‘The Salesman’ and ‘A Separation’ sets the viewer down within a series of densely crosshatched relationships: personal relations, family relations, business and community relations. As in these other films, the core of the scenario of ‘A Hero’ is a particular event: Rahim’s opportunistic attempt to con people into seeing him as ‘a hero’. But Rahim both underestimates the malice felt towards him and the fact that he is not able to control all of the information. Consequently his cover ‘hero story’ ripples outwards in an instable state: some elements have a basis in truth, but his elaboration is fabrication. Rahim’s credibility is slowly undermined, shaping and provoking reactions through the various intimate and social matrices, colouring and recolouring the response to and understanding of his situation by the involved parties.
The strength of Farhadi’s film is that though the developments in ‘A Hero’ may be complex, though we move between different worlds – prison – home – work – community – the bazaar – there is one fixated line of development: Farhadi ’s script holds focus on Rahim’s actual situation tightly following its erratic course. In ‘A Hero’, though lacking the classic denouement of the plot lines in traditional Hollywood Studio products, Farhadi sustains the fixity of purpose of the classic directors: Huston, Curtiz, Wilder, Ford. There are no sub-plots, digressions; no cuts to mountains, sky or other contemporary digressive psychic tropes.
There is a critical Brechtian quality to Farhadi’s writing and in the way he films, making strategic use of wide shots rather than close-ups. In classic Brechtian mode Farhadi’s script does not open up Rahim’s interiority. Rahim and the other characters act in relational terms; it is through other people that the audience see what he does and that Rahim actions make sense. It is through situations that the drama is able to reveal something to us about the social matrix and the ways in which people choose to navigate the world.
In ‘A Hero’ Farhadi films so that we are meant to see what is happening, understand something and draw our own conclusions. As audience we are implicated just by being observers. We cannot view ‘A Hero’ without arriving at some judgement about the complicity of the characters in the play out of the decisions they make. Most relevantly Rahim, who is in prison for the debt he owes to copy shop owner. Rahim is played as likeable chancer, with little awareness of anything outside his own needs. In the opening shot, we see him leave prison on temporary release; in the final shot we see him return to prison. The film covers what happens between these two points in time. Between the going and the coming.
In this ‘between’ we witness his attempt (along with his girlfriend) to exploit the return of some lost gold coins to their rightful owner. After trying dishonest options, Rahim chooses a course of action that’s calculated to enhance his reputational standing, and giving him leverage to cut his prison sentence. The act is to some extent honest, but it’s an honesty grounded in duplicity, which Rahim either overlooks or is unable to appreciate. The unrelenting hostility of his creditor and others eventually leads to his action being caste as even worse than it was, leading to a deep moral discrediting of his reputation. As the relational ties expand, the creditor’s point of view and his determination not to cut Rahim any slack in his manipulative exploitation, are increasingly vindicated. The copy shop owner may be an unpleasant character, but he has seen right through his enemy. And so have we.
But there is a coda. Hope. When Rahim’s ally, one of the prison administrators tries to rope Rahim’s young son (who suffers from a debilitating stutter) into the circus of increasingly desperate attempts to save Rahim, Rahim says: “Enough”. He makes the choice to intervene and put a stop, a complete stop to the cycle of lies and deceit. An honest decision that it’s better to return to prison than to implicate the innocent in his own guilt.
In the opening shot, we see Rahim leave prison on temporary release; in the final shot we see him return to prison. What has happened between these two events is that Rahim for the first time has made a moral choice.
Farhadi has been criticised for being an apolitical director avoiding any confrontation with the politico-religious regime. I don’t accept this. Both ‘A Separation’ and ‘The Salesman’ are in a sense satires, playing out the consequences in small scale of the large controlling macro-environment. Incorporated as key elements in the scripting of both these films are probing questions in relation to the Shi’ite theocracy. In both movies a key issue is the destructive and unequal nature of the traditional relationship between the sexes and the power allocated to men over women in key areas of life. In addition ‘A Separation’s’ play out hinged on the putative authority of the pater familias who was in an advanced stage of dementia, an allusion to the old Mullah’s and Ayatollah’s who control the country.
Likewise it seems to me that ‘A Hero’ is also a loosely drawn analogy pointing up what is going on in Iran today. For Rahim, the likeable urbane non religious protagonist, read the Iranian middle classes and their disastrous pact with the late Shah. In this pact they accepted an easy going urban Western life style as the price they were prepared to pay for living under a corrupt regime that most Iranians felt betrayed and belittled them. Understand the copy-shop creditor (in the business of ‘replication’) as representative of those who felt betrayed by the Shah and his comfortable middle class clients, and there is an analogous notion of debt: a debt of honour. Farhadi is saying that the middle classes have never understood the seriousness of this ‘debt’. They have never understood the root feeling of betrayal that the Shah years represented to the majority, the poor rural and religious Iranians. Farhadi is suggesting that it is not enough for the urban middle classes just to want the Western life style. If some sort of secular change is to come about in Iran, then it has to be accompanied by moral choices. The Middle Classes of Iran, however admirable their intentions, whatever the justness of the causes they espouse, if they comprise of nothing more than an ultimate desire to imitate Western lives, then they are no more than dishonest conmen. Until they understand this they will not succeed.
Central to ‘A Hero’ as an allegorically contextualised satire, is the nature and quality of the acting. The acting takes its cue from the situation not from the emotionally charged imputed feelings of individuals in their situations. In ‘A Hero’ the actors’ first duty is to their situation, as in the Brechtian understanding of the demands of drama. The work of the actor is not to indulge emotive feelings (vide: soap opera) but to work through process. The intensity of the processes set in play by Farhadi requires a disciplined approach to the material by the actors for the issues in the film to retain their clarity and dignity. Within this paradigm the performances are finely tuned to this end, filled out with situational intensity but not bloated and distorted by the emotive overloading of affect.
To return to that ‘look’: that look of deeply nurtured hatred trained on Rahim by the daughter of the copy-shop owner. It is a pure a intensity of affect. What’s remarkable about it is that it fuses in one moment the personal and the analagous social. The personal hatred of the woman for the man who has swindled her; the hatred of the ordinary poor and religious Iranians for the hypocritical machinations of the middle classes, whose driving concern is to be like the West.