A hero and humans
Every film festival should start or end with a film by Asghar Farhadi. It would either properly prepare your taste buds or eliminate some bad flavors. The Iranian writer-director studies dizzyingly complex social, family and moral conflicts, dramas that make you think about following the desperate fate of their characters. This description matches that of Farhadi The past, the first film I saw at the first Toronto Film Festival that I ever covered professionally, when I was still a new recruit to The AV Club, infuriating readers with too much C +. Eight years (and eight TIFFs) later, Farhadi returns with a new triumph, A hero, which yours truly watched today as a punctuation mark on the 2021 edition of the festival. It’s good that some things never change. Like how this guy always makes terrific bookends at any weeklong movie frenzy.
As is the case with most of Farhadi’s films, A hero unfolds both unpredictably and with devastating fate. The main character is Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a calligrapher imprisoned on personal leave for a few days who finds himself the apple of the public eye when he seems to be doing something utterly noble and selfless. His girlfriend (Sahar Goldust), whom he intends to marry after his sentence expires, finds a lost purse containing a number of gold coins. Although selling the coins would help Rahim pay off the considerable debt that drove him behind bars (as we will learn later, it wasn’t exactly his fault; his business partner ran away with the money borrowed by both), Rahim instead chose to revert to their rightful owner – an apparent act of selflessness that earned him admiration for his neighborhood, some local media attention, and interest from a charity who might be able to solve their financial problems through fundraising efforts. Will doing the right thing pay off?
Well, not exactly. “No good deed goes unpunished” reads the first line of the TIFF program entry on A hero. (The words also appeared in some reviews). In truth, this old adage does not fully do justice to the nature of Rahim’s ethically ambiguous actions. Does his conscience interfere, or does he realize that it might be more beneficial to his cause to return the coins, for which he finds out he wouldn’t get that much money anyway? Farhadi, an expert playwright, understands that saints are less interesting than fallible people who try to reconcile their own moral code with their personal interest. He also knows that tragedies (of the fictional genre, anyway) hit harder when the protagonist is undone not only by the cruel machinations of fate, but by his own flaws and mistakes. This is what happens, to some extent, in A hero, as a series of little white lies told by Rahim explodes in his face in spectacular fashion.
Although he officially insists that his films are not “political” (one of the reasons, perhaps, that he did not face the kind of government repression inflicted on his compatriots Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof), Farhadi is a wise cultural critic. That he said it in such clear terms, A hero is a drama about the cruelty of the modern debtors prison, a national obsession with honor and “goodness” and the cycle of internet valuation and rapid reaction without any means specific to Iran. (I’m only half kidding when I say this is a milkshake duck movie from the director of A separationOne might, however, completely miss or ignore the social implications and still be stunned by the intricacy of the film’s plot – the way Farhadi swirls resentments, varying good intentions, and aggravating disappointments in a vortex that sucks everything in. the world around Rahim in its mouth. No other filmmaker, in memory of this reviewer, has ever taken such a sustained interest in liars, nor better captured the nauseating panic of getting caught up in your lies, for whatever reason you tell them.
Farhadi is so sensitive to the essential nature of our species that one might be forgiven for assuming, from an uninformed glimpse of the program, that his latest was the film titled Humans. In fact, this popular, produced (and cleverly towed) by A24, is the feature debut by Stephen Karam, who adapted his own Tony award-winning Broadway show about a family reunion in an empty, creaky apartment in downtown Manhattan for Thanksgiving. It’s the new home for artist Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun), who arrived before the moving van carrying most of their belongings. Middle-class parents feud over Brigid, Erik (Richard Jenkins), and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) join them on vacation at this unfurnished and rather rustic (to put it politely) New York duplex; her older sister, lawyer Aimee (Amy Schumer), who faces personal, professional and medical issues; and her senile grandmother, Momo (June Squibb), who seems barely aware of her surroundings.
As the day progresses, tensions gurgle louder as the ancient pipes winding around the unit, as the characters grapple with each other’s money, religion, eating habits, sanity, and the weird dreams that come with it. ‘they talk about one too many drinks at dinner. . In his unique claustrophobia, Humans betrays its origins as a large capital T-shaped theater, all the heavy themes weighing on the vitriol thrown on a half-darkened setting. Yet Karam also combats directing at every turn, “opening up” his material not with flashbacks or detours in the streets below, but rather with a relentless supply of modern horror film techniques. Sometimes the camera rolls an eerie distance, squeezing the figures into narrow hallways and looking at them through the cracks in the doors. Other times, it settles on the nape of the neck, turns slowly around the dinner table, or slides slowly. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is an unsettling cacophony of off-screen interruptions: mysterious thuds coming from the unit above, water streaming through damaged wood, moaning heaters. (This sound component is meant to be carried over from the stage production.)
We are tempted to describe Humans like a haunted house movie, with ghosts replaced by neuroses, economic anxiety, and the specter of 9/11. (Although the particular year is not specified, it is mentioned more than once that the apartment is not far from zero point.) Halfway, as day turns to eerie night, you half expect a monstrosity – maybe Jenkins’ faceless demon dreams – to come out of the shadows and interrupt all the bad-funk chatter. Then comes a surprisingly orchestrated final scene, legitimately frightening without breaking in the direction of the genre. What we are seeing is perhaps the first major outright drama clearly influenced by the films of Hereditary and Midsummer director Ari Aster. Or maybe just a fact in the general style that A24 looks for from scary acquisitions.
In the eyes of this reviewer, aggressive stylization is a double-edged sword. It’s cool to see Karam rethink his acclaimed act for the screen, putting all the tools of a new craft to bewildering use. At the same time, he sometimes threatens to eclipse his actors, all of them incredible. It’s hard to distinguish a single performance here, but I was particularly blown away by Houdyshell (last seen on the big screen in Little woman) and her perfect approximation of free Middle American motherhood, as well as the way Yeun suggests a shield of extreme politeness I’m not too involved. In the credible journey of casting a family reunion strewn with both expressed and non-expressed conflict, I have seen a lot shudder with gratitude to. That is, Thanksgiving is very spooky with no fear of jumping and J-horror framing.