In Iran, a good man is trying to make up a bad debt by absorbing the Iranian drama

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Thick, but masterfully drawn, the remarkably coherent one Films by Asgar Farhadi follow parallel lines: morals vs. morals and, more provocatively, morals vs. ethics. When moral clashes discuss right and wrong, we can view ethics as power games that stubbornly dramatize opposing views about what is right.

Farhadi’s latest book, A Hero, revolves around this second debate. It has the usual high level of the filmmaker’s modest craft; an excellent cast; and a few caveats, albeit not flaws, worth mentioning. A two-hour exercise in seething fear and the slow backup of a big little lie, the movie premieres streaming on Amazon Prime Jan. 21 as it continues its limited theatrical operations in the Chicago area.

The setting is the Iranian city of Shiraz. There Rahim, played by Amir Jadidi with relaxed resignation, sits in the debtors’ prison. The frowning fateful believer helped Rahim start a business – he is a calligrapher and painter by trade – but he wants his loans to be paid back. Rahim needs money quickly to buy himself out of prison with a two-day ticket and to pay off the debt.

The money he needs shows up in history as a kind of miracle on the street. His secret girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahir Goldoust) finds a handbag full of gold coins at a bus stop. First, she and Rahim plan to mortgage the coins. Then Rahim’s ethical impulse takes the lead instead, and the money is returned to its rightful, albeit secret, owner. Rahim becomes a media hero and model prisoner for his prison guards.

But fate, various forms of Iranian bureaucracy, and simmering resentments divert Rahim’s sudden fame. Like all of Farhadi’s work, “A Hero” functions as a calm, tormenting procedure in which one excuse or deception naturally turns into another and another. There are some new elements in Farhadi’s focus here: on the one hand the role of social media in everyday life and – visually – some noticeable changes in the editing of some sequences and montages.

The limitations of “A Hero” have to do with a tendency that was present in this writer’s and director’s previous efforts, ranging from good to excellent. His films are dominoes falling – models of solid dramatic progress, in the dramatic tradition of Ibsen and Arthur Miller. After “a separation” (2012) Farhadi won his second Oscar for “A Salesman” in which an Iranian theater production of Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” reflected the ethical dilemmas of its actors behind the scenes. Farhadi’s best work approaches ambiguity at the seller’s level; his secondary films more closely resemble Miller’s “All My Sons,” with its gradual, easier-to-describe tragedy. “A Hero” is the second stage, with this crucial caveat: Farhadi’s second stage, like most filmmakers, is the first.

The cast is perfect throughout and unites professionals and amateurs. Jadidi plays a basically passive man, which means we know he’ll blow at dramatic strategic points in “A Hero”. It’s not easy to play such a character, at least between explosions; With his ambiguous facial expression and the meticulous physization of a Hangdog psyche, Jadidi keeps everything on the right track. What gives Farhadi’s latest painting its chaotic vibrancy are the domestic scenes in the house of Rahim’s sister (Maryam Shahdaei, who always scolds her brother for his “unworthy” cigarette habit). In these scenes we feel life as it is lived in Iran today and everywhere.

This life is overshadowed by doubt, fear, economic uncertainty, and a million small moral and ethical questions. This is what A Hero explores while balancing our sympathies for what these people are going through.

“A hero” – 3 stars

MPAA classification: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and language)

Duration: 2:07

How to see: Now in the cinema at the Gene Siskel Film Center; Lake Theater in Oak Park; and Marcus Gurnee. Amazon Prime will premiere streaming on January 21st.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

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Twitter @phillipstribune

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