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A Hero review – Asghar Farhadi returns to form with a rich moral melodrama

The acclaimed Iranian filmmaker delivers his best film in ages with this twisty tale about the blurry line between right and wrong

At his best, Asghar Farhadi is a master melodramatist, writing scripts that are equal to the work of Pedro Almodóvar, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, or Tennessee Williams. They are rich in the extremes and heightened emotions that makes for great melodrama, rifling through coincidence, narrative corkscrews and tensions with ease.

But what makes Farhadi’s approach to melodrama so refreshing is the juxtaposition between his writing and his filmmaking style. Where his scripts are filled with a sense of theatre, they are counteracted by his muted, stripped-back way of shooting – keeping performances and mise-en-scene as naturalistic as possible. His latest, A Hero, is an exquisite showcase of the clash between high theatre and humble aesthetics.

The setup – and its central moral quandary – is put together with elegant precision in the first twenty minutes. On leave from a debtor’s prison, Rahim (Amir Jadidi) visits his girlfriend, who has found a bag of gold coins, almost enough to pay back his debt. But questions from his sister and ex-wife, unaware of the girlfriend’s presence, prompt guilt in Rahim, and he finds a way to return the bag. News of his good deed quickly spreads, landing him on TV, where he starts telling one white lie after another, until eventually things begin to unravel. No good deed goes unpunished, indeed.

The stakes of what Rahim is doing is always made clear by Farhadi. Even as those stakes shift endlessly and become more unattainable, Rahim’s dreams of freedom slipping constantly out of grasp, we never lose sight of where the chess pieces are. What’s thornier are the moral pickles he and his family find themselves in, with circling rings of desperation and bad luck conspiring to trip Rahim up at every opportunity.

Jadidi gives the protagonist a deeply sympathetic hangdog air, a working-class Joe who just can’t seem to catch a break – but he is not entirely without fault. As Farhadi peels back the layers of his personality, we find a person who is quite happy to lie in order to avoid conflict, who loses his temper when pressed, who is desperate to be liked. There’s a glorious complexity to him.

Since his major breakthrough with A Separation, Farhadi has seemingly settled on a pattern of making one film in Europe for every one made in his home country of Iran. The European films mark slight missteps – Everybody Knows in particular felt overwhelmed by the A-list glamour of lead duo Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem – but every return back to his native Iran (in spite of what I am sure is a restrictive artistic space) has seen Farhadi strike right back to his absolute peaks. A Hero is no different.

A Hero was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It will be released in UK cinemas on 7 January 2022.

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