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Asghar Farhadi’s Films Look Beyond Good Guys and Bad Guys

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The Iranian auteur’s latest triumph, “A Hero,” follows a body of work in which there are no heroes or villains — just humanity.

Asghar Farhadi's "A Hero"

“A Hero”

Amirhossein Shojaei

A Hero,” the newest film from two-time Academy Award winner Asghar Farhadi, starts with a deceptively simple premise. A man named Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is imprisoned for an outstanding debt, and gets what seems like a lucky break: His girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldoust), finds a bag full of gold coins worth enough to get him out.

Instead, Rahim decides to do the noble thing and seek out the bag’s owner, and upon doing so is widely praised. Once the motive behind this act of generosity is questioned, though, things get muddled, and people around him start to question whether he’s actually deserving of plaudits. As an audience, we also begin to wonder: Should we feel sympathy for Rahim or skepticism of him?

This is a question often invited by Farhadi’s work, which is known for exploring ambiguous moral situations. In his worlds, every character struggles with what it means to be a good person. No matter the event, they juggle right with wrong, waffling between an altruistic spirit and an opportunistic one.

The title of Farhadi’s newest film winks at this central theme: You won’t find an obvious hero-villain dichotomy in “A Hero,” or in any of his movies. These are deeply human films in which each character — regardless of background, generation, or disposition — strives for virtue, love, and recognition, but often takes a slippery, roundabout route to getting there.

“A Hero”

A Separation

Farhadi won his first Oscar for “A Separation,” a shrewd, penetrating 2011 portrait of an Iranian couple and the tensions that arise after they separate and hire a new housekeeper. The film begins with Simin (Leila Hatami) and her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), arguing in front of a judge. Simin would like to move abroad with her teenage daughter, Termeh (the director’s daughter, Sarina Farhadi), but Nader insists he must stay in Tehran to care for his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. From the start, there is no right or wrong side in this fight — and particularly after we meet Nader’s aging father and the respectful, watchful Termeh, it’s hard not to feel for all parties involved.

The story gets more complicated when Simin moves out and Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a pregnant woman with a young daughter, to pick up Simin’s household duties, including being the chief caretaker of his father. Razieh is younger, poorer, and more devoutly religious than Nader — and once she and Nader get into a shouting match over domestic duties that turns mildly violent, the altercation brings lasting chaos and harm into both of their lives.

Farhadi is a master of difficult questions and shifting allegiances. Depending on who you ask, each move by Nader, Simin, and Razieh can be seen as justified or dubious — and though by the end we’ve seen every piece of the story and have a grasp of every argument, who’s right or wrong or what to do next is never crystal clear.

The Salesman

Unlike “A Separation” and “A Hero,” the discord at the heart of “The Salesman,” Farhadi’s second Oscar-winning film, doesn’t have to do with legal officials or law enforcement — instead, it’s a tale of justice taken into a citizen’s own hands. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are a young married couple who both work in theater; we learn early on that their troupe is putting on a rendition of the play “Death of a Salesman.” But when their new apartment is broken into and Rana, who was in the shower at the time, is assaulted, the couple’s once-idyllic life is thrown into disarray.

In the days after the incident, Rana declines to alert police, insisting that replaying the incident will exacerbate her trauma. Feeling guilty and powerless, Emad takes it upon himself to track down the intruder — though once he finds him, avenging his wife’s honor proves more difficult, and less fulfilling, than he envisioned. Throughout, Emad continues performing in “Death of a Salesman” onstage, and as the movie unfolds, the play’s themes of brutality, grief, and struggles for fairness seep into Emad’s own journey.

Ultimately, “The Salesman” — like “A Separation” and “A Hero” — is as much about ethical ambiguity as it is about the emptiness of revenge. Emad inflicting pain on Rana’s assaulter won’t take away her distress; it will only cause more people to suffer. This sentiment is never more alive in Farhadi’s films than when a child appears onscreen — in all three films, Farhadi will periodically center his camera on a child’s shy, innocent eyes. These young characters often serve as a tender reminder of what the adults surrounding them could be, if they tried a bit harder: free from bitterness, full of love.

“A Hero” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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