“A Hero” Makes a Mockery of the Heroic

Anthony Lane in The New Yorker:

The hero of “A Hero,” the new film from Asghar Farhadi, is a sign painter and calligrapher named Rahim (Amir Jadidi). As the story begins, he leaves prison and is driven up the wall. To be precise, up a cliff of pale rock, rich in elaborate carvings, northeast of the Iranian city of Shiraz. The cliff is the home of a necropolis, Naqsh-e Rostam, and Rahim finds it covered in scaffolding; climbing high, he greets his brother-in-law, the rotund and genial Hossein (Alireza Jahandideh), who is working at the site. The wind whistles gently around them, and Hossein brews tea, close to the tomb of Xerxes the Great, a Persian king who died almost two and a half thousand years ago. Rahim, by contrast, is on a furlough for two days, after which—not unlike Eddie Murphy in “48 Hrs.” (1982)—he must return to prison. Observing the scene, you feel dizzy at the doubleness of time. It expands and contracts, either stretching far into the distance or slamming shut.

Something else, however, makes you no less uneasy, and that is Rahim’s smile. It looks friendly and generous, but it’s also weirdly weak, and it can fade like breath off a mirror. This is clever casting on Farhadi’s part; we warm to Rahim’s crestfallen charm, and instinctively feel him to be down on his luck, yet we don’t entirely trust him, and the film proceeds to back our initial hunch. What led to his incarceration was an unpaid debt. His creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), is grave, dour, and disinclined to forgive, despite being related to Rahim by marriage. (Just to thicken the mood, Bahram is a dead ringer for the Mandy Patinkin character, Saul, in “Homeland.”) “I was fooled once by his hangdog look, that’s enough,” Bahram says of Rahim, and we can’t help wondering, Could the dog be fooling us as well?

Anyone who has seen Farhadi’s earlier films, such as “About Elly” (2009) and “A Separation” (2011), will know how cunningly he doles out information, piece by piece. Thus, in the new movie, we gradually realize that Rahim has an ex-wife; that she will soon be married to someone else; that, while he’s been locked up, his sister Mali (Maryam Shahdaei) has been caring for his son, a shy kid with a stutter; that Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), a young woman beloved of Rahim, is the boy’s speech therapist; and so on. These things are true, but they are hard to cling to, because they are bundled up with things that are not necessarily true—secrets and lies, in which Rahim is all too quick to acquiesce. And the bundling only gets worse.

More here.