Crisis Magnet: Asghar Farhadi’s Moral Dilemmas

Amir Jadidi as Rahim in the Cannes 2021 Grand Prix winner, A Hero. — Photographer… Amir Hossein Shojaei
Amir Jadidi as Rahim in the Cannes 2021 Grand Prix winner, A Hero. Photographer… Amir Hossein Shojaei

Filmmaker Asghar Farhadi on traversing murky moral territory in A Hero, writing characters one crisis at a time, and creating classical stories for modern audiences. 

Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is in jail for a debt he hasn't been able to pay. During a two-day leave, he tries to convince his creditor Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh) to withdraw his complaint in exchange for paying back part of the debt. Presented with a missing purse whose contents could solve all of his issues, Rahim is faced with a difficult decision that will ultimately have consequences he couldn’t have imagined.

This simple idea is the catalyst for A Hero, the latest film from A Separation and The Salesman writer-director Asghar Farhadi. Those two earlier projects won Oscars in their respective years for Best Foreign Language Film, and Farhadi finds himself in the conversation again with this new work. Iran’s official submission for the (now-renamed) International Feature Film award, A Hero earned the Grand Prix at 2021’s Cannes Film Festival, and is riding a wave of festival praise as it makes its debut in US theaters before landing on Amazon Prime on January 21.

Saleh Karimai and Amir Jadidi in A Hero.
Saleh Karimai and Amir Jadidi in A Hero.

Farhadi knows how to put his characters through the moral ringer like no other, pushing Rahim to the brink as he questions whether the ethical cost of self-preservation is too high. As the story unfolds, the media circus gets involved, while the organizational side of the prison Rahim is detained in, and even a charity organization, all want to take his story and use it to their best advantage. Pulling this humanist tale out into an even broader scope, Farhadi is navigating similar territory to some of his previous work while also reaching even wider, to great success.

In a landscape of cinema that predominantly paints in black and white, Farhadi navigates the complexity of emotions, intention, empathy and morality that we all deal with in a way that feels decidedly human at every turn, allowing us to empathize with all sides. A Hero is a gripping fable that rattles the nerves so effectively, building up a level of tension that is almost unbearable by the final act. You want to look away, but you can’t dare.

Farhadi and translator Rayan Farzad joined Letterboxd senior editor Mitchell Beaupre to talk about creating a world full of dimension in a story where no character is either villain or hero.

Amir Jadidi and Mohsen Tanabandeh, who plays Bahram, in A Hero.
Amir Jadidi and Mohsen Tanabandeh, who plays Bahram, in A Hero.

You’ve described your writing process as one that takes a lot of time. You get a kernel of an idea in your head that you can’t let go of until you eventually need to put it on the page. What was it about the concept for A Hero that burrowed into your mind and gave you no choice but to write it out?
Asghar Farhadi: The concept for this story came into my head when I saw the play by Bertolt Brecht called Life of Galileo. In that play there are two lines between Galileo and another character about making a hero. This idea of what happens in a society when they turn somebody into a hero, that was something that stayed in my mind.

At the time I wasn’t thinking of writing something about it, but it was always something interesting that I liked to think about. There are certain things that stay in your mind, like a magnet that just grabs everything that is around its orbit without you even knowing how you want to express the idea in the future.

Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti in About Elly.
Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti in About Elly.

Something that recurs in your work is how you start with a seemingly simple incident, like how About Elly could be described as being about a woman who goes missing, or The Salesman is about an assault, and from those seeds there comes a cascade of elements. It’s like an avalanche. How does that process work for you as a writer, to develop from this one idea that then collects so much more?
It is a very long process, but I’ll try to summarize it. The first part of the process is that idea of the magnet, where I’ll grab everything from everywhere I can—from my childhood, from my everyday life, from anywhere—to really pull them out of my mind and put them on the paper. Then I’m looking for a crisis between all the notes that I’ve already written down. The crisis that I’m talking about, it doesn’t have to be anything huge, but then after I have that storyline I start to try and find a different POV about the crisis.

For example, in About Elly the early disappearance of the woman is a crisis, but the more the story progresses we see how every person, every character looks at the crisis from their perspective. We start to see this crisis from different angles in life. In real life it’s the same thing, even if it’s a small crisis. Then always this first crisis causes the next crisis to happen. It’s like a stone that falls into the water, and it causes these ripples, and then the ripples hit a wall and it causes another ripple coming back. When I start writing the storyline, it’s important for me to find out what the first crisis is of the story.

In A Separation, the first crisis is what they should do about the father after they get separated. Then that crisis causes them to bring the woman into their house, and that woman starts another crisis. It just goes back and forth, back and forth. All of these crises are like domino pieces—you hit one of them and they all start to fall off.

The important part is that I always find the crisis first, and then I start thinking about how all of these different characters will respond to this crisis, and that creates many different layers. Who are these characters? We understand them by the conditions that they’re in, the situations that they’re in. There’s never been a case where I already had a character in my head, and then I put that character into the crisis, or the situation. I always have the crisis first.

In About Elly, it’s about this group of people who go into the north of Iran and then one of them disappears, and they have to find out how to talk to their family about that. That’s when I ask myself about this woman who disappears, and what kind of character she has. Based on the crisis of her disappearing, I start to define her.

Leila Hatami and Payman Maadi in A Separation.
Leila Hatami and Payman Maadi in A Separation.

Those crises often have a moral component as well. Certainly in A Hero, with this question of whether the right thing to do is to return or keep the purse, you present Rahim with this moral dilemma. What draws you to explore these kinds of quandaries in your films? These questions between right and wrong and those gray areas in between?
These ethical questions that are in my stories I think are maybe there because of the different perspectives that we see around the crisis. There are differences between those perspectives, and so we as an audience start to ask ourselves which one is the correct one.

As an example, in A Separation, we have the father, and the husband who wants to stay because of his father. Then we have the wife who wants to leave because of her daughter. We ask ourselves which one of these is correct here. It’s basically two narratives about one crisis. When we, as the audience, are looking at this crisis and seeing all different perspectives, the first thing that comes to our mind is choosing between these two. It becomes a moral question. When we put the audience in the situation to judge, I find the first decision they make is more about those moral questions that are being asked.

You, more than almost any other filmmaker in modern cinema, are so good at putting audiences into the shoes of these characters and forcing us to question what we would do in these situations. When you’re writing, do you approach each character as if they are ‘right’, so to speak? Because each one of them, in their own perspective, believes that they’re the ones in the right.
What I do in my films is give each character the time, both from an emotional point of view and from a logical point of view, to be able to explain themselves. In A Hero, when we see the relationship with Rahim and his son, his family, and all the people he has around him, we get emotionally connected to this character. On the other hand, when we see Bahram and his relationship with his daughter, it makes us understand him emotionally as well, and creates this emotional balance between the two. As much as Rahim has time to defend his actions, Bahram also has time to defend his. Therefore, this fight isn’t one between bad and good. It’s a fight between good and good. The audience doesn’t know who we are rooting for to win. We’re rooting for each one, in a way.

Sahar Goldust as Farkhondeh in A Hero.
Sahar Goldust as Farkhondeh in A Hero.

You’ve spoken about how in your childhood you had a very black-and-white understanding of the world, and you’ve also stated that the biggest investment that artists have comes from their childhood. How do you feel that your childhood influences the films that you make now?
I’m not sure about the things I’m about to say, so this is sort of a guess. I spent my childhood in a culture where there is a line that would tell you: “This is right, and this is wrong. This is the correct thing to do, and this is not the correct thing to do.” Most of my childhood I spent with this suffering, wondering if what I was doing was correct or not. Because I could never understand that between the good and bad there are a lot of colors, maybe my approach to writing is a reflection, or a reaction to what happened to me as a child.

This is something that translates into my life as well. Sometimes my students or my audience asks me if I believe there is not a bad person in the world. I say no, I think there are people who are kind of naturally bad, or there are people who have deep problems—emotional, psychological problems. But if we bring those people into our films, and we give them time to explain what they’re doing, then they no longer become villains—even if they’re still doing the bad things that they do.

There are a lot of movies made about this in the history of cinema. 12 Angry Men, for example, by Sidney Lumet. At the very beginning of the film, you feel like these are bad people, but as they have the discussions in that room you gradually, one by one, find out they’re not very bad people. They become great. There is a famous quote that goes something like, “There is a reason for every action that people do”, and that’s a key for me when I’m writing.

Mohsen Tanabandeh, Saleh Karimai and Amir Jadidi in A Hero.
Mohsen Tanabandeh, Saleh Karimai and Amir Jadidi in A Hero.

As the story of A Hero unfolds, more and more people get involved, and so this humanist drama also becomes an examination of different organizational elements, like the media circus, which starts to spin the story. What inspired you to bring these other entities into the mix for this film?
When I was in the process of writing this story, I knew already that it was going to be about someone ascending, and then gradually descending. I knew that this was not a fresh, original idea—everybody knows about this kind of idea—but what was important to me about this project was how I can capture the quality of this guy going up and coming down. In this day and age that we are living in, the newspapers, TV, social media are the things that have the sway over this. That’s why I wanted to bring social media into the film.

From a directing point of view, showing social media in the movie felt like it was too on-the-nose. A bit too much. I wanted to try and capture the consequences of social media, but without seeing the social media itself in the film. That was a whole new point of view, something that hadn’t been in any of my work before. In my previous films, there were people talking about their crises from their own point of view, but now with social media, and media in general, we are adding another level of point of view into that, because they have their own narrative about the crisis.

Each of the different groups tries to manipulate the truth with their own little lies in order to sell it whatever way will be best for their angle. Is that something you find pervasive in the world we’re living in? Everyone wanting to distort reality for their own best interests?
Yes, all of these people are trying to tell the narrative from the point of view that is most beneficial to them. For example, the charity has good intentions, but it’s to their benefit to tell the story in a way that can encourage people to give money so they can help other people with the charity. It’s a bit of a contradiction. In trying to help other people, Rahim is making these slight mistakes, and it’s the combination of these small mistakes together that makes this huge crisis.

I believe that’s true in real life as well, that it’s the small mistakes we make that cause big problems, not the big mistakes themselves. When we are about to make big decisions, we already know that it’s a big decision. Because of that, we put a lot of thought into it. However, when it’s something small we don’t think about it as much. We just do it without really thinking. A lot of the slight mistakes people make in this film are just small ones with their words. It seems that the language that’s supposed to connect us together actually causes a misunderstanding that then blows up into something much bigger.

Amir Jadidi in A Hero.
Amir Jadidi in A Hero.

Something as simple as making a mistake with your choice of words, or having a misunderstanding like that, calls to attention the fact that while A Hero is a very modern story on the surface, it’s ultimately a timeless fable at its core.
I didn’t think about that consciously while making the film, but most of the stories I work on have this core that is like a piece of classical literature. It has the elements of the classic fable, but with the modern materials of today. Even the structure of the films are a classic structure.

Culture is always changing over time, and as your stories are so rooted in culture and how people interact with one another, do you feel that the inevitable shifts in social environments over the years can be seen in your films?
There are lots of changes that have happened in Iranian society over the years. Some of them are very positive, and some of them are very negative. You can probably see that through my movies when you watch them one by one. I think the biggest change that is happening over the course of my films comes from my age. As I’m getting older, I’m making more movies with this idea of something that happened in the past, and now we are looking at how those ripples have come through to today. That’s the idea of most of the films I’m making these days.

There is a Spanish proverb that goes like this: “We don’t know what kind of past is going to happen to us”. This is an idea that sticks with me and is always coming with me. In A Hero there are these things that happened to the main character in the past, like getting separated and being bankrupt, and he is now seeing the consequences of that in his present.

A Hero’ is in US theaters now via Amazon Studios and will stream on Amazon Prime from January 21.

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