Coming to the Cannes Film Festival no longer holds any mysteries for Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. His previous film, Everybody Knows, starring Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, opened the event in 2018. He has also brought his filmsThe Salesman (2016), which won him a Best Screenplay trophy, and The Past (2013) to the official selection.
”I’ve got used to this process now,” he tells The National. “I’ve been through it a couple of times. I don’t really anticipate [any reaction back home]. I know that when you have this kind of exposure, this kind of success, it brings you more friends and more enemies.”
He’s back in Cannes competition this year with A Hero, a film that has already received strong reviews and that will compete for the coveted Palme d’Or this weekend.
His 2011 international breakthrough, A Separation, won the Berlin Film Festival’s top accolade, the Golden Bear, before going on to become the first Iranian movie to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. With such success, it is perhaps no wonder that he has accrued “friends and enemies”, as he puts it, along the way.
Like A Separation, which deals with an Iranian couple navigating the country's divorce laws, A Hero puts audiences back into the Iranian judicial system. Amir Jadidi stars as Rahim, a family man on two-day leave from prison in the city of Shiraz. A failed business loan from his former brother-in-law, malicious shopkeeper Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), has landed him in prison.
In certain circumstances, depending on what contracts are drawn up, a custodial sentence can be served over an unpaid private loan in Iran, explains Farhadi, 48. “The creditor can file a complaint against the other if he doesn’t receive the money back and then that person can be put in prison for the debt he’s not been able to pay back.”
When the film starts, the woman Rahim intends to marry, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), has found a lost handbag with 17 gold coins in it and they consider selling it as a way of alleviating the debt that hangs around his neck. But feeling his conscience pricked, Rahim seeks out the owner, a charitable act that soon has him unexpectedly celebrated after the prison authorities exploit his good deed on television. However, as rumours fly around on social media doubting his credibility, the story twists again.
“I didn’t set out to make a film about social media,” Farhadi stresses. “I didn’t even know that it would take such an importance in the storytelling. The focus and the main topic of the film is the rise and fall of a person; of somebody who is taken and put in the spotlight without doing anything for it and all of a sudden is taken down from it. So of course this very quick ascension had to be through media … and naturally social media.”
In Iran, Farhadi calls the various available social media platforms “the main way of communication” now, even though some are “officially filtered” by the authorities.
“People find ways to keep using them,” he says. He's neither on Twitter nor Facebook, but he is on Instagram. “But it’s not under my name”, he says. Still, as A Hero shows, while social media offers a fine platform for spreading the truth, it’s also a web for lies and miscommunication.
The notions of truth and honesty are huge themes in A Hero, and Farhadi expertly presents a world where truth is not absolute. “What we know about truth is that it’s very difficult to define,” he says. “You don’t have an accurate definition of the limits and of the shape of truth. It’s not something you can define with no question, no nuances. There are several aspects to it, several takes on it. The limits are just a continuum; it’s not some clear line that you can use to define the truth.”
The film also depicts a world where those who have made mistakes in the past seem to be continually punished for them, however much they try to make amends. “Nothing is fair in the world”, opines a taxi driver who becomes embroiled in the plot later on. Does Farhadi agree?
“It’s hard to say if I agree with what my character says – if it’s his point or my point. Through his mouth, sometimes I share the views of my characters and sometimes I don’t. In general, I [avoid] these maxims, these general truths. Saying that the world is fair is not right because you can think of many cases where the world is not fair, and saying the world is unfair doesn’t seem more accurate to me.”
It’s this caution not to generalise that makes Farhadi such a wise filmmaker. He originally intended to cast “unknown faces” in the film, to give “some freshness” to the characters and performances. But after realising what he’d demand from non-professionals wasn’t easy, he went for trained actors, including Jadidi as Rahim. “He had this quality of innocence that I wanted, in his face.” Beneath the naivety simmers anger against the system. “It’s quite natural that he has this feeling … the smile on his face becomes more of a facade to hide his rage and frustration.”
Whether Spike Lee, who heads the Cannes jury, will see A Hero as a main contender for the Palme d’Or remains to be seen. You can certainly expect social media in Iran to blow up if he does, along with a gaining of further friends and enemies for the director. For the moment, Farhadi is uncertain what his next film will be, or whether he’ll make one in Europe again, as with The Past and Everybody Knows. “I don’t know yet what’s awaiting me,” he says. Whatever it is, it’s likely to be another fascinating dip into human morality.