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MOVIE REVIEW

‘A Hero’: when the arc of a fable takes on the weight of a tragedy

Asghar Farhadi’s drama is on the shortlist for the Oscar for best international feature

Amir Jadidi in "A Hero."Amazon Studios via AP

The title of the Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s latest film, “A Hero,” is quietly ironic, and doubly so. In an era when comic-book superheroes dominate global moviegoing the way, say, greed does Wall Street, the protagonist of “A Hero” could hardly be less heroic — or greedy. That’s no less true within the context of the story Farhadi tells.

“A Hero” is a worthy successor to Farhadi’s “A Separation” (2011) and “The Saleman” (2016), both winners of the best international feature Oscar. It’s on the shortlist in the category this year. Opening at the Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, and Somerville theaters on Jan. 7, “A Hero” starts streaming on Amazon Prime Jan. 21.

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Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a sign painter and calligrapher, is in prison for debt. He’s a slight man, with an air of sadness. Guileless and a little desperate, he’s prone to bursts of anger. Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), the man who had Rahim put in prison for defaulting on a loan three years ago, speaks scornfully of his “hangdog look.” Yes, hangdog is the word for Rahim’s distracted, often downcast expression.

On a two-day pass, he sees his son, Siavash (Saleh Karimai), who lives with Rahim’s sister (Maryam Shahdaei) and her family. Her bond with her brother doesn’t keep her from frequently becoming upset with him. What’s Persian for “His own worst enemy”?

Rahim also sees his fiancee, Farkhondeh. Sahar Goldust, the actress who plays her, looks like a subdued Idina Menzel, with sorrow substituted for urgency. “A Hero” is Rahim’s story; but Farkhondeh’s plight, as an unmarried woman in her late 30s in a male-dominated society, may be even more moving. She lives in a different kind of prison.

Sahar Goldust, left, and Amir Jadidi in "A Hero." Amazon Studios via AP

Farkhondeh finds something on the sidewalk, and this sets in motion a train of events. Detailing what she finds and the specifics of what ensues would be unfair. It’s true that plot in no way drives “A Hero.” Farhadi isn’t that sort of filmmaker. But events do. What does drive “A Hero” are character and emotion. Farhadi is very much that sort of filmmaker. And it’s events that provide the frame for character and emotion.

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The discovery enables Rahim to do a good deed. The deed makes him a hero. (One way to look at “A Hero” is as a wiser, sadder Frank Capra movie in an age of social media.) Rahim’s tempted not to do it, but he does. The deed has consequences. Some are welcome. Less predictably — but not, perhaps, surprisingly — more are unwelcome.

“A Hero” has the arc of a fable. What enlarges the fable into a movie, and that movie into a small, indelible tragedy, are details. There’s the way Rahim’s shoe comes off in a fight — though even he doesn’t notice until afterward. His sister’s getting him a glass of water, unbidden, after a heated argument with a prison warden. The lurching of a city bus that Rahim and Siavash are riding on. How the presence of a similar bus, a few minutes later, concludes what turns out to be Rahim’s final act of heroism.

Farhadi’s artistry is what makes the details so important, both his selection of them and their handling. In much of “A Hero,” one simply has a sense of watching lives being lived. That’s only in part owing to Farhadi’s focus on character and emotion. It’s also a function of stylistic choices (no musical score, lots of handheld camerawork) and, most important, his unobtrusive skill and understated humanity.

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From left: Mohsen Tanabandeh, Saleh Karimai, and Amir Jadidi in "A Hero."Amazon Studios

If you don’t doubt that skill, notice early on the shot of Rahim as he starts his furlough, ascending an immense scaffolding on the exterior of the tomb of Xerxes to see his brother-in-law, who’s working on the renovation. It’s an amazing image. Then notice a few scenes later Rahim’s similar, less-monumental ascent up a set of stairs outside an apartment building. It’s one thing for a filmmaker to know what he’s doing, as Farhadi does. It’s that much rarer when it’s done so well.

We take for granted the astonishing technical facility of contemporary filmmaking. We shouldn’t. One result of that facility is that we shrug (assuming we even notice) at how uncommon it’s become for a contemporary director to practice the cinema of humanism. We really shouldn’t. A term like cinema of humanism sounds inflated and inert. It wasn’t that way when Jean Renoir or the Italian neorealists were practicing it. Very much in their tradition, Farhadi makes it once again vital.

Seeing both sides in a drama can be a formula for noble tedium. With Farhadi, it works to enrich his material and make it memorable. “Where in the world are people celebrated for not doing wrong?” an angry Bahram asks when Rahim is being lauded for his (initial) good deed. That’s a nasty question, but it’s not unmerited. Dislikable as Bahram is, he’s not a villain. In the endless debate between justice and mercy, we know which side he comes down on. It’s a tribute to Farhadi as both artist and man that we can’t say that for sure about him.

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★★★½

A HERO

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. Starring Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabandeh, Maryam Shahdaei, Sahar Goldust. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, Somerville; starts streaming on Amazon Prime Jan. 21. 128 minutes. In Persian, with subtitles. PG-13 (some thematic elements and language), with subtitles


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.