a long talk

Asghar Farhadi Doesn’t Believe in Heroes

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi is arguably our greatest living dramatist, a keen observer of human behavior and the ways our responsibilities to our friends, family, faith, and fellow human beings open us up to joy and pain. His films are puzzles that snap into hyperspecific portraits of everyday life both inside and outside of Iran, with frustrations between married couples or lovers, between parents and children, and between neighbors or colleagues fueling works like About Elly, The Past, and Everybody Knows.

Farhadi’s latest, A Hero, is another twisty-turny story about morality and miscommunication. The script weaves together empathetic characters and critiques of both Iran’s criminal-justice system (a topic also considered in Farhadi’s 2004 film Beautiful City) and the instantaneous moral judgments often made on social media. And like the director’s most recent films set in his home country, Best International Feature Film Oscar winners A Separation and The Salesman, A Hero is a study of how an individual pushes back against the rigidity of systems, laws, and cultural practices larger than themselves.

In A Hero, Amir Jadidi’s Rahim is released from debtors’ prison for a brief visit with his family. During his two days of freedom, he comes to possess a purse filled with gold coins. Instead of using the bounty to pay down some of his debt to the embittered lender Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), Rahim returns the gold to the woman who lost it. That act of altruism grabs the attention of prison administrators, who want to use Rahim’s story to ward off bad press — an act of manipulation that threatens to topple Rahim from esteemed hero into cause célèbre.

A Hero (which is available for streaming on Prime Video) aligns with Farhadi’s prior work in its examination of how seemingly minute choices have reverberating, sprawling effects on an interconnected society. I recently spoke to Farhadi in a mixture of English and Farsi, with the help of translator and fellow filmmaker Rayan Farzad, about the nuances of Jadidi’s performance, whether heroes really exist, Farhadi’s statement rebuking the Iranian government, and how he prefers his tahdig.

I rewatched The Salesman before watching A Hero, and that movie opens with the destruction of an apartment in Tehran, a result of the city’s overdevelopment and rush toward progress. A Hero opens in Shiraz, near the tomb of Xerxes, with workers preserving a space that is more than 2,000 years old. Between those two films, there seems to be a tension between old Iran and new Iran. Was that a purposeful connection?
This is something that came to me in my films in a very subconscious way, not something that I had an idea for before starting. But if anyone wants to do a realism kind of film, this is something that happens in Iranian society. We’re talking about a society that has a very strong relationship to its past, but at the same time, has a huge will to update itself to what is happening in the 21st century.

Why Shiraz? What is the importance of that city for you?
The thing is that Shiraz … has different angles that help my film. In Shiraz, compared to, for example, the capital Tehran, the relationships between people are closer. The families are closer together. And the other part is the historical background. Because of the connections Iranians have with their history, there are lots of signs of Iran’s history in Shiraz and that area. There’s a link between that and the concept of A Hero.

Do you remember the first time that you went to Shiraz? What was your first experience there?
The first time that I went to Shiraz, I was just a kid. We went with my family, my grandfather, and with families we were close to. I was very small, I can’t remember it very well. But now that I see the photos, it’s very interesting. We have photos from Takht-e-Jamshid, Persepolis, and Hāfezieh. Later on, we went to Shiraz a lot, and I really liked that city.

In a 2014 interview, you described information in your scripts as being “covered in dust — it’s up to the characters to keep wiping the dust away, like archeologists who continue to discover new things.” What did that approach do for this film?
How you get the information across to the audience and when you give it can have different effects. In The Salesman, the information was given in a way to make a mystery, a riddle. But in A Hero, the information is spread throughout the film in a way that creates ambiguity. This ambiguity is not something that I forced, but the story on its own, in its nature, has it. And this is something that I get in my personal life as well. It seems like nothing in life is clear. Everything is ambiguous.

The closest thing to us is us, ourselves. But even we don’t have a clear idea about who we are. I tried to bring this ambiguity into the film by thinking about how to spread the information throughout. At the very beginning, we feel like we know Rahim. All the decisions that he makes, or other people make for him, are clear. But then as the story unfolds, we find out that all his decisions were actually ambiguous.

Sometimes I think that this is a very Iranian thing. There’s a public version of you and a private version of you, and trying to find the real you feels impossible. There’s a moment in A Hero when Rahim’s sister, Mali, played by Maryam Shahdaei, talks about the gap “between what people say and what they do.” We know a lot about how other people view Rahim. How do you think Rahim views himself?
It’s a very important question. I think the image he has of himself at the beginning is the image that others gave to him. We can see from the things that are happening around him that he believes nobody has respected him. Even his sister, when she sees the bag with the money, she says something disrespectful. And everything that he tries in the film is somehow an attempt to compromise all the humiliation that he’s felt in his life. The image that Rahim has of himself is not one he created.

I feel like it’s only in the last image of the film that he makes an actual decision. That’s the moment he is himself. The first line of the film, the first dialogue of the film, is “Rahim Soltani,” and the last line of the film is “Rahim Soltani” as well. It’s a voyage between Rahim Soltani to Rahim Soltani. This person is not the same person at the end.

Rahim is a cipher for most of the film, but I thought he was truthful when he was angry — when he starts the fight with his creditor, Bahram, and when he slams the door in prison and the prison administrators force him to apologize. Those felt like moments when he broke out of the performance of who others expect him to be. 
Yes, I think those are the moments when he has an honest image of himself. Those are the moments when he shows his anger, and he shows who he is. But in the other parts of the film, it seems that he covers his anger with a smile. Whenever he gets angry, with the exception at the end of the film, he always censors it. This is something that comes from our culture, probably. He is a character for whom the collective ideas of who he is are more important than his own individual idea. And this word that we call âberu, or reputation, it’s very important in the everyday lives of Iranians. There is a saying in Iran, it’s in our culture and maybe it doesn’t exist in another culture, and it says that a person makes his face rosy by slapping himself. There is a lot of meaning behind this. It means that you have to âzar — annoy yourself, hurt yourself — in order to make other people feel like you’re doing well.

I thought that he was ta’ârof-ing all the time.

He is so constrained in his interactions, in part because there is such a strict code in Iranian culture about etiquette and how to behave publicly. He waits to be spoken to, he lingers outside rooms until he’s invited, he has this hangdog look. I read that for weeks you worked with Amir Jadidi on his physicality. What did you want him to get right about his smile? 
The most important thing was that he shouldn’t look like an actor. He should look like a very normal, common man in a complicated situation. He should be a person who makes very small mistakes, tells very small lies, but at the same time, has lots of likable qualities. I tried to make a fragile physique for him. He’s not stable. He’s always imbalanced. It seems like he can’t hear well, and he has to lean forward. His mouth droops a little bit down. His fingers are not straight and strong and steady, but they are curled and broken. This would help us have more empathy with him, and at the same time, it would let the other characters give themselves permission to give him advice all the time.

Yes, Rahim’s stance is always crooked. He carries the literal debt of what he owes and an emotional debt for what he owes his family. Was he always imbalanced? 
I think that this incident made him become like this. If you had seen him as a teenager, we would see a very strong, beautiful teenager who is ready to make a beautiful life, but this incident made him the way that he is right now.

He is constantly in contrast to Mohsen Tanabandeh’s Bahram, whose arms are often crossed and is very closed off during the whole film. 
Exactly. That’s a very correct point. Every physical characteristic of Rahim, we made the opposite of Bahram. He’s very strong, he always stays stable, his body is very sturdy, he always makes decisions himself.

During the production’s COVID delay, you rewrote Bahram to make him more empathetic. What was added?
We have two characters that are confronting each other, and one of them is the protagonist and one of them is the antagonist. In the version that I had before, from a rational point of view, we gave the benefit of the doubt to both, but emotionally, we were closer to Rahim. I added Bahram’s daughter on the other side to make a balance between Rahim and Bahram and so they are not black-and-white.

And Bahram’s daughter, Nazanin, is played by your daughter, Sarina. You worked together on A Separation, in which she played the daughter Termeh. How do you balance being Sarina’s director and her father?
[Smiles.] It’s a complicated and hard relationship, especially now that she’s older than she was in A Separation. It’s very hard for us to forget our relationship. But because she wanted to make sure that I wasn’t being easy on her, she was trying much harder. I was telling her, “Sarina, this is a character who when people see her, they are going to hate her,” because she does something to Rahim that we don’t like. And acting as a character that the audience has those feelings toward is very hard.

Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust) seems very honest in her love for Rahim. But then I remember she wanted to sell somebody else’s gold for her and Rahim’s benefit. Even things that seem good on their surface, you think about it for another second, and you realize, “Oh, that’s actually sort of terrible.”
I think for all the characters in the film, we understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. But the quality Farkhondeh has is that she wants everything for her ′eshq, for her love. When she sees that Rahim is a little upset or suffers from something, she suffers even more. This is something like what mothers feel, like my mother. When they see that their child is in pain, they can’t go to sleep. They stay awake day and night. From a certain point of view, this is the most romantic or loving relationship in all my films.

My father passed away last year, and when I was growing up, he would always say that there wasn’t really an English translation for ′eshq. He always thought it was more than love. He would try to explain it to me as it being about your entire soul. 
That’s an important point. In English, we say love. In Farsi, we say ′eshq. The word comes from the word ashagheh, which is a plant that goes around a tree and covers that tree up. It’s a very poetic word and has a very poetic angle, and we don’t have that in English. What we have with Farkhondeh in this film is the same thing. It’s like she doesn’t see herself at all.

No one in this film really seems like a hero, which is the irony of the title. Is it even possible to be a hero in this day and age?
I think the idea of a hero that makes all the correct decisions for a long period of time, this is like a fantasy. It doesn’t happen in real life. Maybe in different periods of our lives, we need a hero. But we also need to understand that this is a made-up idea, this is not the real thing. Maybe in a family, I can understand that one member becomes a hero of that family. But for a whole society, I don’t really understand how one person can become a hero for everyone. Maybe for a small period of time. But for ten years? Twenty years? It’s not going to happen, unless that person dies.

I also want to ask about the statement you released in November on Instagram. You rejected the idea that you are in debt to the Iranian government just because A Hero was chosen as the country’s Oscars submission. Rahim does something similar when he rejects the release of a video shot by a prison employee (Farrokh Nourbakht) that features his son Siavash (Saleh Karimaei). Did working on A Hero make you think harder about how your films represent Iran?
When I was making the film, I wasn’t really thinking about what was going to happen in the future. That statement of mine, the people of Iran understand it more. Because the Iran situation is so complex, it’s hard for a foreigner to understand it. They have to know what’s going on, the complexity of Iran’s situation, to understand it. But if I want to summarize it, it’s talking about the independence of the artist.

What do you think of your future as a filmmaker in Iran?
I hope and wish to make most of my movies in Iran. But nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow.

The taxi driver, played by Ali Hasannejad Ranjbar, has a perspective that is anti-establishment, anti-prison. He feels like he could be a version of Rahim’s future. He tells Nadeali (Ehsan Goodarzi), who is in charge of verifying Rahim’s story about returning the gold, “I’m nobody, young man. You who are somebody. Why are you accusing this poor innocent guy?” Could you talk about writing that character and that scene and what you wanted to convey?
The taxi driver is one of the most-liked characters in the film by people around the world. He helps Rahim without deriving any benefit from it, the same way that Farkhondeh does. There is a quality of isar in him. [Farhadi breaks off, looks at Farzad.] I’m not sure how isar would be translated.

Farzad: Sacrifice. I don’t know the exact word. It’s the name of Tarkovsky’s movie too.

Farhadi: He sort of sacrifices himself for something else.

It’s very selfless.
His character is very different from Rahim. Rahim has covered himself, hidden his intentions and motivations behind a veil. But the taxi driver, he’s more honest. His hand is shown.

In A Hero, Mali makes tahdig, Persian crispy-bottomed rice, for Rahim. When you make tahdig, is it just rice, or do you add potato slices on the bottom of the pot, too?
[Farhadi and Farzad laugh.]

Farhadi: Potatoes. What about you?

Potatoes, of course! Rice is delicious, but it’s not the same. 
Farzad: They’re different, but they’re both good.

Farhadi: A mix of rice and potatoes is the best one.

Farzad: Too much carbs.

Farhadi: I love it.

Farzad: Even the macaroni version.

Farhadi: Oh, yes.

Basically all of it. 
All of it.

Now I want to talk about the final scene. In the past, you’ve talked about how you don’t really believe in endings. But this film has a very finite end point: Rahim goes back to prison. Can you talk about designing that scene? In the background, a man is released, and in the foreground, we see the prison guard going about his job. How did you decide to end the film this way, and how did you compose that final shot?
I always thought about the last scene in the film: Because Rahim is a painter … what would he paint if he wants to paint a picture on the wall of the prison? I thought that he was going to paint a door that is open to the outside, and there is a couple that is walking outside. And this came from the idea that he is actually seeing the picture, the painting, that he wanted to paint. He’s seeing it outside. In the last scene, there are two things happening at the same time. The story of Rahim, that he goes back inside the prison, which is a dark story, and the story of this old man who is walking out of prison and the bus that Rahim didn’t get at the very beginning of the film — he gets on that and leaves. The difference between this ending and my other films’ endings is that although it’s sad, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There is some kind of hope in it.

For that man, his life has started again. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The tomb of Persian poet Hafez. Iran selected A Hero as its Oscar entry in October 2021; a month later, Farhadi published a statement distancing himself from the government. He ended his statement, “I have never had the slightest affinity with your backward thinking, nor do I have the slightest need for your support and praise.” (A Hero was shortlisted for the 94th Academy Awards but did not make the cut for the final five nominees.)
Asghar Farhadi Doesn’t Believe in Heroes