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FilmWatch Weekly: Iranian drama ‘A Hero’ and ‘Red Rocket’ feature flawed but fascinating protagonists

A two-time Oscar winner for best foreign film looks at the ambiguities of heroism; a "demented Horatio Alger" keeps on trying.

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Mohsen Tanabandeh, Ehsan Goodarzi, and Amir Jadidi in “A Hero.”

I posted my list of the ten best films of 2021 a couple of weeks ago, but of course those sorts of reductive enterprises leave a lot of brilliant material on the cutting room floor. To wit, a pair of fascinating films that didn’t quite crack the list, but are still worth venturing out to the cinema for while you still can:

For decades now, Iranian cinema has provided example after example of ingenious work that delivers social and moral critiques while operating in a political environment where being too critical can lead to serious consequences. (Just ask Jafar Panahi about cancel culture.)

Early trailblazers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Panahi have either, respectively, died, faded from prominence, or been subject to house arrest and prevented from traveling abroad. Far and away the most successful director to emerge in recent years is Asghar Farhadi, whose films have already won two Best Foreign Film Academy Awards (for A Separation and The Salesman). Farhadi’s films, as befits their generic titles, mine superficially mundane stories for gems of psychological, emotional, and moral truth, and his latest, A Hero, is no exception.

Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is in debtor’s prison in Shiraz after being unable to repay a loan to his ex-brother-in-law. While on a 48-hour leave, he stumbles upon a purse filled with coins at a bus stop. Instead of using this windfall to repay his debt, he brings it back to the prison in order to return it to its rightful owner. Rahim becomes a folk hero, celebrated by local media and held up by the carceral authorities as a model prisoner.

And yet, of course, things aren’t so simple. Some, including Rahim’s creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), look a little more closely at his story. Turns out it was Rahim’s girlfriend who actually found the purse, and it’s Rahim’s sister who impersonates the purse’s owner when she couldn’t be located for a follow-up interview. And Bahram is no heartless loan shark—he used his daughter’s dowry for the loan to Rahim.

Ultimately, as with Farhadi’s previous dramas, this is a fairly mundane story enlivened by narrative specificity and lived-in performances. Occasionally, Rahim’s ostensibly innocent decisions come off as unrealistically inept (i.e., having his sister impersonate the purse owner). But Farhadi masterfully invokes the ambiguity of nearly every character in his story, in order to paint a portrait of a society that is far too quick to assign moral labels to people, when, of course, life is much more nuanced than that. It helps that he’s able to draw such strong performances from his cast.

The most poignant scene comes when TV crews strive for an interview with Rahim’s young son, whose speech impediment makes him a special object of their piteous fascination but also a perfect reinforcement of Rahim’s inherent goodness. He ultimately interrupts the journalists’ efforts to exploit his child, and this, more than anything else, cements him as a good guy, even if not a bona fide hero. (Opens Friday, January 7, at Living Room Theaters and Salem Cinema; streaming via Amazon Prime as of January 21)

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IF RAHIM IS A FLAWED protagonist, he’s got nothing in that department on Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), the central figure in Red Rocket. Mikey is a onetime porn star who has returned home to his emphatically named (and very real) hometown of Texas City, Texas. Mikey’s at the end of his rope, but persuades his estranged wife (Bree Elrod) and her mother (Brenda Deiss) to let him stay with them while he tries to get his life back together.

Simon Rex and Susana Son in “Red Rocket.”

This project ends up involving a local teen (Ethan Darbone) in awe of Mikey’s version of celebrity, who enables his various misguided get-rich-quick schemes, such as reconnecting with the town’s major pot dealer. But Mikey eventually sees his true return to glory in the form of Strawberry (the remarkable discovery Susana Son), the 17-year-old employee of a local donut shack.

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And this is where Red Rocket really gets interesting. Mikey has been thus far a lovable loser, his confidence undimmed by his frequent and humiliating setbacks. But, of course, it’s impossible to root for him to succeed in becoming the “suitcase pimp” for this barely legal, albeit not unenthusiastic, potential sex worker. And yet, somehow, Mikey retains a sort of demented Horatio Alger aura throughout. His pluck may lead him to perverse ends, but ain’t that America?

Director Sean Baker’s previous movies, such as Tangerine and The Florida Project, similarly focused on members of America’s hidden underclass, depicting transgender prostitutes and transient motel dwellers as three-dimensional characters worthy of our empathy. He does the same here, but Mikey is a much more challenging—and therefore interesting—subject. It’s one thing to refuse to moralize about poverty-stricken single parents living week-to-week in motels; it’s another, arguably braver, thing to do the same for a guy like Mikey.

Rex had, apparently, previously been best-known as an MTV VJ and an internet personality, and his performance is a revelation. Another of Baker’s strengths has always been casting, including the many nonprofessionals in Red Rocket—reportedly, Deiss was discovered when she asked Baker for help jump-starting her truck in Texas City, while Son was picked out of a crowd in a theater lobby in Los Angeles.

There will be those who find Mikey too sleazy to root for, which he is—but Red Rocket isn’t about rooting as much as it is about bearing witness to someone constitutionally incapable of giving up on his version of the American Dream. (Currently playing at Cinema 21, Regal Fox Tower, and other area theaters)

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STREAMING PICK: Capturing the ennui of the English on the cusp of the Thatcher Era, the 1979 Radio On boasts a stellar soundtrack that includes David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Devo, Robert Fripp, and others. The plot, such as it is, has a downbeat disk jockey driving the A4 from London to Bristol after learning of his brother’s death. He (and we) take in the black-and-white griminess of the industrial landscape and the equally barren countryside, meeting a series of eccentric characters along the way. Most notably, a young Sting shows up as a drifter who’s a huge Eddie Cochran fan. If the lyrical monochrome brooding is reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ early 1970s road movies, that’s because Radio On was directed by a former film critic and shot by Wenders’ assistant cinematographer. While it’s not the most original or compelling piece of cinema, it remains a fascinating time capsule, and one I had not heard of before now. (Streaming on The Criterion Channel)

About the author

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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