Two-time Oscar winner’s superb new drama is not without controversy

A Hero ★★★★
(PG) 127 minutes

When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer. That was Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in Die Hard, although he admitted the phrase came from a classical education.

Early in A Hero, the protagonist Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is released from debtor’s prison for two days, to repay his debt. He goes to see his brother-in-law Hossein (Alirezah Jahandideh), who works as a restorer on the grave of Xerxes, at Naqsh-e Rostam, near Persepolis in southern Iran. He needs to talk about money.

The camera glides across monuments cut into the huge cliff walls, similar to Petra. This place is beyond imposing. Rahim starts to climb a scaffold that must be 15 storeys high. The camera watches him go up, without a cut. The shot must take two minutes.

In stylistic terms, that shot sorts the sheep from the goats. It breaks the Western rules of editing that celebrate brevity and cutting for real-time grace. Director Asghar Farhadi is telling us to take a deep breath and readjust expectations, particularly to do with time. He’s also setting up the idea this culture has done great things before.

What comes next can be read as a comment on modern Iranian society. Like every Iranian filmmaker, Farhadi has to tread carefully, even though he is like Alexander, with few worlds left to conquer.

His films have won two Oscars for best foreign film (A Separation and The Salesman). He has won at Cannes and most of the world’s other top-tier festivals. This is his sixth feature since 2009, and each has been a critical and commercial success. A Hero is no different — a superbly engaging moral drama about modern-day Iran — although its origins have been mired in controversy and court cases.

One of Farhadi’s students claims . She made a documentary about a man in Shiraz who became famous when he handed in a bag of cash that he found while on leave from a debtor’s prison. Whatever the truth, the film is a sprawling drama about life in modern Iran. It is not always easy to interpret and the action might be considered slow, but the rewards are great.

Rahim has nothing but his honour: the question is whether he is prepared to compromise it for the sake of getting free. As in almost every one of Farhadi’s films, someone tells a lie and the consequences are large. As moral tales, his films have no equal, but they also give us a very pungent sense of the forces at work in Iranian society, particularly on the level of class conflict. His film technique is subtle, with masterful control of the dynamics of story.

A Hero is in cinemas from June 9.

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