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Siraj Syed


Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 

 

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A Hero, Review: On the see-saw of truth and lies

A Hero, Review: On the see-saw of truth and lies

Out on parole, a jailbird becomes a hero overnight, without lifting a finger. It wouldn’t be much of a story if it ended there, and it doesn’t. There are twists and turns, quite like a suspense thriller, only here there is no murder nor any serious crime committed. That’s the operative word. Serious. Is lying a crime? Is repeated lying a serious crime? Is lying to garnish a truth a very serious crime? Iranian master Asghar Farhadi takes-up an off-beat subject and uses the old narrative style, without ever getting judgemental. A Hero is a good film that ought to have struck many chords among viewers, but as it progresses, it succeeds only partially. Just as the director remains non-judgemental vis-à-vis his characters, the viewer remains objective and only partly participative with the film.

Rahim Soltani comes out of jail and heads for a construction site, where he climbs several storeys of make-shift wooden stairs to meet his brother-in-law, Hossein. He just has a couple of days, and he wants to make the most of it. But his main aim is to try and settle the debt of Toman 1,50,000 that he owes his brother-in-law, Bahram. It is this debt that has landed him in prison. Now separated from his wife, he is seeing and hoping to marry Farkondeh, who dotes over him. Farkondeh is the speech therapist at the centre where Rahim’s son Siavash undergoes sessions to help him overcome a permanent stutter.

Rahim is dead broke and his brother-in-law barely meets his expenses. As a sort of divine gift, Farkondeh, finds a lost ladies’ handbag, containing several gold coins, which they both attempt to sell, in order to repay the debt, but find that gold prices have fallen significantly, and even if they were to sell all the gold coins, it would amount to less than half the debt. In the meantime, he moves in with his sister Malileh and her husband Hossein. Malileh discovers the handbag and coins, and confronts Rahim about it, leading Rahim to trace the original owner of the handbag and return it to her. A woman comes to claim the bag (which Rahim claims he found, and not Farkondeh), Rahim is praised for his selfless act and his story is covered by the media, before he returns to prison, and he becomes a local celebrity. Bahram is suspicious of Rahim’s story, believing he is trying to restore his image and leave prison to stop the impending second marriage of his ex-wife. Meanwhile, the prison begins to arrange for Rahim’s release.

Writing the film himself, Asghar Farhadi, who turns 50 in May, has created too many characters and too many see-saw points. Almost all characters are shades of grey, and even the protagonist and antagonist answer to the same description. If you are looking for symbolism, there can be no better scene that the one in which Rahim climbs higher and higher and higher, and then, Hossein and he climb down, all the way to the ground. He also uses many standard ploys, like a child with speech impairment, a divorcé who really loves his son, a son who idolises his separated father, a sister and brother-in-law who stand by the ‘hero’ through thick and thin, a beloved and a taxi driver who are willing to lie through their teeth just to get Rahim off the hook, the money-lender who sent Rahim to jail is not a loan shark, rather, one who has had to pay a loan shark to settle the money he lent to Rahim, prison officials who swing between sympathy for Rahim and saving their own backs, charity organisers who have their own priorities, TV channels and press reporters who find a story where there was none, a town council investigator who is bent on getting to the root of the whole episode, and a few social media addicts who take the first opportunity to get the developments viral.

One cannot talk about the script of A Hero without touching on the issue of plagiarism that Farhadi is accused of. Farhadi is a renowned film-maker, with a long list of prestigious awards, including two Oscars for A Separation in 2012, and The Salesman in 2017. The case was filed by his former student, Azadeh Masihzadeh.

The lawsuit accuses him of stealing the idea for A Hero, which won the Jury Grand Prix in 2021's Cannes Film Festival, but did not make its way to the Academy's shortlist this year.

Farhadi rejects the allegation and has counter-sued for defamation. He has claimed he came up with the idea for the film before he met Masihzadeh. Farhadi's former student claims the director stole the story of A Hero from a documentary she made, All Winners, All Losers, during one of his workshops, held in 2014 to 2015, in Karnameh, a private culture and art institution, in Tehran, Iran.

In the first session of that course, Farhadi brought a list of newspaper excerpts about people who had found valuable objects and decided to return them to their owners instead of keeping them for themselves. Negar Eskandarfar, the manager of Karnameh, told ABC News all the students in that workshop started to make documentaries by searching and finding characters they were assigned and discover the story behind their decisions of returning the objects they had found.

Masihzadeh, however, told ABC News she found her story by herself because the teams that were formed in the class were full, and she had been left with no character. So, she said she came up with her own character and story through extensive field research in her town of Shiraz, Iran.

"While most of other characters that the rest of the students followed had already been interviewed by national TV or other media programs, Ms. Masihzadeh did all the research to find her story and character by herself and independently," Eskandarfar said. Mohammad Reza Shokri, the main character of All Winners, All Losers, is a single father who is in prison for financial reasons. Masihzadeh's documentary traces back the ordeals Shokri has gone through after he found a purse full of money in an off-prison day and how returning that money affected his life.

Masihzadeh claims Farhadi asked her in August 2019 to sign a document confirming that the idea of her documentary belonged to him. She said she signed the document, because she felt "intimidated" by Farhadi's position as a very known film-maker. It was only after the screening of A Hero, in October 2021, that Masihzadeh said she realised the similarities between the plot of A Hero and her documentary. "Watching the film, my whole body was shaking out of shock because I could predict what would happen after each scene," she said. Masihzadeh didn't sue Farhadi until after he sued her for allegedly spreading lies about him.

Coming to his direction of A Hero, he has a tight control over proceedings. Most of the shots are indoors, with multiple characters, dealt with suitable focus and out of focus compositions, and the outdoor shots are full of ambient sounds, mainly from passing cars. Background music is conspicuous by its absence. Casting is of a high order and all the characters look their parts, though the stuttering boy Siavash is not totally convincing. In a fairly long film, Farhadi avoids the back-story of Rahim’s divorce and his hooking-up with Farkondeh altogether, things he could have addressed, at least briefly. He does play with the looks and get-ups of almost all his characters, especially Rahim’s beard, moustache and his shaven head, at the end, as he heads back to prison. There are cuts and joins at crucial points, leaving the audience to assume what transpired in the few seconds/minutes that were either not filmed deleted.

Amir Jadidi as Rahim easily flows through the complex role with élan and a strange kind of evil innocence, coupled with a rare disarming smile. Mohsen Tanabandeh as Bahram attracts hatred and sympathy in equal measure, in a role that has several shades. Sahar Goldoost (a newcomer) as Farkhondeh is pretty and intense. Maryam Shahdaei as Malileh and Alireza Jahandideh as Hossein, her husband, make a convincing couple. Saleh Karimaei as Siavash Soltani does what he is told to do, and does it well. If it strikes one as not in complete tune with the film, the fault is not his. Ali Ranjbari as The Taxi Driver (as Ali Hasannejad Ranjbar) imparts a raw earthiness to his part, which rings true. Fatemeh Tavakoli as the elusive owner of the handbag strikes you first as genuine and then makes you wonder whether she was a fraud, just what the ambivalent role demanded. Also in the cast are Farrokh Nourbakht, Mohammad Aghebati, Amir Amiri, Parisa Khajehdehi, Mohammad Jamalledini and Habib Bakhtiari.

Cinematography apparently posed no major challenges, except lighting the indoors and the actors inside with subtle shades of light and dark. Often, the camera is hand-held, but smoothly operated. Camera placement cannot be faulted. Credit to Ali Ghazi and Arash Ramezani. With so many twists and turns, and little side-tracks every few minutes, it must have been difficult to maintain a coherent narrative. Hayedeh Safiyari does a good job. I wonder if the see-saw and ding-dong developments could have been maintained with crisper cutting, but the 130 minutes does seem a bit long. Iranian films are usually much shorter in length. However, Farhadi’s films tend to be on the longer side: A Separation was 123 minutes, The Past 130, The Salesman 124 and Everybody Knows clocked 130 minutes. So, the length does not come as a surprise.

Old-style, realistic story-telling, with piecemeal revelations, without flashbacks, and a questioning of societal mores, inasmuch as they affect the common man, are trade-marks of Farhadi’s style. They are very much in evidence here. But Farhadi is not as his best in A Hero, where the X factor, which helps resonate with the audience, is missing. That still leaves the film eminently watchable and engaging. It is an emotional see-saw that you must see and experience.

Co-produced by Amazon Prime, which has the American rights, the film is being released in India on 08 April, by Impact Films, who hold all Indian rights, the same company that recently released Parallel Mothers.

Rating: ***

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAJ6_lmr_HQ

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


Bandra West, Mumbai

India



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