Asghar Farhadi’s Cannes Grand Prix-winner is already being talked up as Oscar contender (for Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film). And winning, by the way, is something the Iranian director knows all about. He bagged a top prize from Academy voters for the mind-blowing A Separation; he won again, in 2017, for meh meta-drama The Salesman. Even on middling form, he’s swooned over. Yet success hasn’t spoilt him. His new film is a blistering, if gentle, triumph.
Rahim (Amir Jadidi; fabulous) is a handsome but flaky single dad, who’s already spent two years in a debtor’s prison for failing to repay a loan from a family friend, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh). Rahim’s about to take two days leave and makes a beeline for his new girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), who recently found a handbag full of gold coins. Though the gold isn’t enough to pay off Rahim’s debt, it could still be useful. Rahim decides to “selflessly” give the bag back to its rightful owner.
The prison authorities, impressed by this seemingly simple gesture (and keen to improve their own image), quickly stage a none-too-scrupulous media event that, in turn, attracts the attention of a savvy charity head (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy), who gives Rahim a certificate to honour his “pure heart”. The lies are piling up. But it doesn’t seem to matter. Soon people all over the country are donating money to help Rahim get back on his feet.
Bags of gold belong in fairytales and, in a fairytale, Bahram would probably be delighted by his old friend’s good luck. But Farhadi’s interested in the real world.
Bahram and his watchful daughter Nazanin (beautifully played by Farhadis’ own daughter Sarina), feel that Rahim’s irresponsible behaviour, which directly impacted Nazanin’s future, needs to be acknowledged and atoned for. When other complications arise, concerning the original owner of the gold, Rahim becomes embroiled in more falsehood, increasingly reliant on the testimony of his innocent, semi-disabled son. Rahim is desperate to restore his reputation. But is the only way to do that by concocting another overly neat narrative that social media addicts can consume?
Umpteen films have implied that it’s dangerous to divide the world into heroes and villains. But it’s still rare to have a central character as shifty as Rahim and his bullshitter’s smile is endlessly fascinating. He and Farkhonde (who looks a bit like Rachel Weisz) are keen to get married and it’s impossible not to sympathise with them. It’s equally impossible not to sympathise with Rahim’s mysterious foe (whose identity you’ll be able to guess by the end of the film). Where does Rahim belong? Ach, Farhadi’s point is that very few of us are in a position to judge.
You may not be in the mood for navigating a moral maze. And, after a terrifically tense and subtle sequence, (in which all of Rahim’s sloppy words come back to haunt him), the script does slightly lose its way. That said, the final shot (of shadows, nuzzling a rectangle of light) is stunning. If you enjoy tender riddles, there’s no better way to kick off 2022.
127mins, cert 12A
In cinemas now and on Amazon Prime Video from January 21