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Iranian Oscars entry 'A Hero' explores the complexity of a good deed

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has had two films, "A Separation" and "The Salesman," nominated for Academy Awards for best foreign language film. Both of them won. And his latest film, "A Hero," is Iran's entry at this year's Oscars. Critic Bob Mondello says it could be a triple play.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: As we're introduced to Rahim, the hero of "A Hero," he appears a good deal less than heroic. Released from prison on a two-day pass, he heads for a cliffside archeological site where he has to climb scaffolding to really alarming heights to reach his brother-in-law.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

MONDELLO: It's a nice visual representation of the uphill climb he'll have to reclaim his life. Rahim was imprisoned for not paying a debt, and he thinks a stroke of luck may now save him. His girlfriend found a purse with gold coins. Might he use them to pay off the debt? He has them appraised.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A HERO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: But then he does something that appears utterly selfless. He puts up flyers and locates the owner of the coins and returns them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A HERO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: And that's where the story turns complicated. Rahim's selfless act gets him noticed, first by the prison warden, then by a TV station that does a human-interest story for which the warden suggests Rahim leave out the girlfriend part so the story works better - just a tiny sin of omission, right? Then a charity gets involved, and there's a little more fudging of details, but lots more goodwill.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A HERO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, non-English language spoken).

(APPLAUSE)

MONDELLO: And before long, everyone is impressed with Rahim's noble act, except the guy he owes money, who sounds like a jerk until you realize his objections make sense. Now, I should mention that despite the title "A Hero" and a sweetly charming performance by Amir Jadidi as Rahim, there are never any real heroes or villains, for that matter, in an Asghar Farhadi film. His worldview is too complex. And in this case, the whole point is to call moral and ethical judgments into question. The writer-director encourages you to choose sides so he can make you doubt your decision and then doubt the doubting again and again as that first little omission about the girlfriend leads to supporting fibs that require supporting evasions, and the stakes keep rising until pretty much everyone's compromised - good intentions frustrated, bad actions justified, lies told to repair the harm done by lies previously told until the very notion of a good deed feels preposterous. And what about the notion of a hero? Well, that feels like a really fascinating movie.

I'm Bob Mondello.

KELLY: And a heads-up that I had the chance to speak with director Asghar Farhadi about this movie - fascinating conversation. We're going to have it for you tomorrow here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.