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film review

Amir Jadidi, right, stars as Rahim in A Hero.Amazon Prime Video/Handout

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A Hero

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi

Starring Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabandeh and Saleh Karimaei

Classification PG; 127 minutes

Streaming on Amazon Prime Video starting Jan. 21

Critic’s Pick

If the quote-unquote hero at the centre of Asghar Farhadi’s compelling new film has a catchphrase, it might be, “The truth is …”

It is a line uttered at least three or four times throughout the drama by Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a fortysomething inmate on a two-day leave from debtors’ prison who is desperate to avoid returning to his incarcerated life. How desperate? So much that Rahim resorts to telling a series of half-truths and outright lies that place himself, and his family, in the kind of moral spotlight that can burn a person to ash. This tactic might work for a professionally smooth fabricator, but Rahim is both a terrible liar and, at heart, a decent man. Whenever Rahim sputters out his signature, “The truth is …” to wary relatives, furious enemies, and would-be friends, the man’s duplicity is deceptively easy to read. The truth is that there is no truth when it comes to Rahim. Only obfuscation, born in Dickensian panic.

Such is the unbearable tension that drives Farhadi’s latest work, which fits well within the Iranian director’s other stable of morality tales, including A Separation, The Salesman, The Past and the underrated Everybody Knows. Knotty in plot and stubborn in its refusal to give any of its characters an easy out, A Hero positions the instinct to do the right thing and the act of actually doing the right thing as being in diametrical opposition to one another. The story’s ultimate payoff is quietly painful, although not quite as ruinous as the consequences of the filmmaker’s earlier stories. Consider this movie Farhadi Lite, which isn’t much of an insult: the man still handily trumps most of his cinematic contemporaries.

A Hero fits well within writer and director Asghar Farhadi’s other stable of morality tales.

A Hero starts simply. Out in Shiraz for a brief taste of freedom, Rahim attempts to erase his prison sentence by paying back Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), the family friend who lent him a large sum of cash to start an ill-planned business. (Iranian law allows a debtor to be freed if a creditor is either repaid or agrees to forgive the transgression.) The plan, which is made only possible by an act of god: Pawn off a bag of gold coins that Rahim’s girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), happened to find on the street recently.

But there’s a hitch: the price of gold has hit a low point, which means that the loot isn’t enough to completely pay off what Bahram is owed to secure Rahim’s freedom. Several more hitches follow, each compounding the other until Rahim twists himself, and his sister, brother-in-law and young son, into a predicament that forces him to enter a perpetual state of untruth. Not one to let larger society off the hook, Farhadi doesn’t limit A Hero to the scope of Rahim’s actions. Various Iranian institutions (the media, the courts, even the philanthropy sector) are given their own opportunities here to do whatever we assume the right thing actually is, and then left to flail.

A Hero isn’t a collection of profound insights as it is obvious truisms delivered with the force of a slow-motion gut punch. Specifically: that the world is full of people who style themselves as saints when the opportunity strikes, but fail to realize that the mere presence of “opportunity” is in direct contradiction to selflessness. It’s a message delivered with subtle-enough strokes – well, aside from the nudge-nudge-ness of the film’s title – and, crucially, with perfectly calibrated performances.

As Rahim, Jadidi adopts an aw-shucks hangdog manner that suggests pity but masks manic despair. The actor has an easy way with a smile, but quickly the viewer, if not the character’s contemporaries, come to learn that there is a sly calculation to Rahim’s grin. Also powerful, in a more sympathetic fashion, is the onscreen presence of Saleh Karimaei as Rahim’s son Siavash, a schoolboy whose speech impediment amplifies his innocence while also reminding his father of how hard it is to speak with sincerity. Farhadi wrings two magnificently raw performances from both actors, providing A Hero with its one and only honest truth.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.