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'A Hero' tells the story of how complicated a good deed (and a small lie) can be

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Say you owed somebody money - like, a lot of money, so much you had been sent to prison - debtors prison - because you couldn't pay it back. And then on leave to go home for two days, you came into possession of a purse filled with gold coins. What would you do - sell them, pay off a chunk of your debt, get out of prison, start a new life or try to find the owner of the purse and give it back? That is the question at the center of the new Iranian movie "A Hero." It won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival this past July, and director Asghar Farhadi joins us now along with his interpreter.

Welcome.

ASGHAR FARHADI: Thank you.

KELLY: Would you sketch us just in a sentence or two who your main character is? This is Rahim.

FARHADI: Yeah. (Through interpreter) He's a very simple character who's in a very complicated situation. He makes some very small mistake and decisions that turn out to be critical. During the film, we have a kind of empathy with the character with him, and we root for him to gain his reputation back. This empathy is not just for Rahim's character, but it's with all the other characters in the film as well.

KELLY: So the title of the film, "A Hero" - is he? Or is that more of a question that we're supposed to be figuring out?

FARHADI: (Through interpreter) No, I don't think he's a hero. Heroes usually are - they make their own decisions. They know exactly what they want. But Rahim is not like that. Choosing this title, "A Hero," has a contradiction in it that I really liked. When we see the title, we're looking forward to see a character that we admire all the time. But when you see the film, we see a character that everybody else in the film is making decision for that character.

KELLY: It's exactly as you're saying. He's a very passive character...

FARHADI: Yes.

KELLY: ...A man who lets things just happen to him. I kept wanting to shake him and yell, wake up. Fix this. Stop.

FARHADI: Yeah. Yeah.

KELLY: Setting aside the character, is that a challenge to find an actor who can make...

FARHADI: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Passivity watchable, compelling? - because it was.

FARHADI: Yeah, exactly. (Through interpreter) Actually, finding an actor who can act as a passive character is much harder than doing a character who is very practical and always makes decisions. Usually, the audience don't like a passive character. So doing a passive character in order and make the audience like and follow that character is very hard.

KELLY: Now, the female characters were great. Rahim's sister, Rahim's fiancee - they are, if anything, driving events...

FARHADI: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Way more than he is. Talk about developing those characters.

FARHADI: Yeah. (Through interpreter) Maybe it comes from my personal life - that in my life, all the women around me are very strong women who make all the decisions all the time.

KELLY: (Laughter).

FARHADI: (Through interpreter) And that's maybe my personal take on this. But I feel like the female characters in my film right now - although they have the emotional side as well, but they are way more courageous. And they can make decisions much easier.

KELLY: Talk to me about the setting. The city of Shiraz is almost a character itself. This is a famous city...

FARHADI: Yeah.

KELLY: ...In the southwest of Iran famous for history and for Persian literature and for the gardens. We don't see any of that in this movie. You take us just to ordinary people's homes and offices. Why?

FARHADI: Yeah. (Through interpreter) The city of Shiraz is a very famous city between Iranians. And it has a historical heritage, and a lot of our heroes and all of our literature heroes are coming from that area. The other aspect of Shiraz is that the people of Shiraz - they have a very strong bond with their families, unlike the capital that - it's not exactly like that.

KELLY: Oh, I can feel people from Tehran listening in (laughter) and wanting to argue over that.

FARHADI: (Through interpreter) I'm living in Tehran myself as well. And Tehran is a huge town, so you can't say all of it like this. But like any other capital, people in Tehran are not as - you know, as strong in bonds with their family or other people...

KELLY: A lot of moving back and forth.

FARHADI: (Through interpreter) ...As like in smaller cities.

KELLY: Yeah.

FARHADI: Yeah.

KELLY: I did wonder if part of just the focus on showing us, you know, an ordinary person's kitchen, an ordinary person's living room - when you're making a movie about a very ordinary person struggling with a very complicated decision, whether that was deliberate, we're not seeing famous landmarks. We're just seeing normal life.

FARHADI: Yeah. (Through interpreter) The thing that I really like and I try to use in all my films is that using the everyday material to make dramas in my films. From afar, it may look like that these are ordinary details of lives are not interesting stuff to make a story out of them. But they are very precious, you know, signs in life that you can make a story. Also, the everyday life details are full of, you know, layers. When the time has passed and you look at them again, you find all those layers.

KELLY: Well, and I know you, of course, weren't making this primarily for an American audience. But I loved that Americans will get to see ordinary Iranians and their lives because so much of what we hear about Iran is about the tensions between our countries. And it's so good to be reminded these are people who love and grieve and hate and wrestle with the same temptations and issues and problems...

FARHADI: Yes.

KELLY: ...That we do here.

FARHADI: Exactly. (Through interpreter) That's completely correct. I mean, it has been very interesting so far that everywhere in the U.S. that I have been so far, I feel like the people of the U.S. are very emotionally similar to Iranian people. But the image that part of the Iranians and part of the U.S. population have from each other are only through the politics, which is not - unfortunately not a good picture.

KELLY: You said you were living in Tehran...

FARHADI: Yes.

KELLY: ...Which perhaps answers my last question, which is, are you able to continue working in Iran and making the kind of movies you want to make?

FARHADI: (Through interpreter) My hope is that this continues and I make my - most of my movies in Iran. And that's because I'm born in that place, and the world of that, you know, place is much more familiar to me. I understand that world much better. But what can happen tomorrow nobody can predict. And I don't know if I can continue working there or not. We'll see.

KELLY: Well, I hope for our sake, you do because you make the kind of movies that no outsider could make.

So thank you. It was a pleasure to watch this.

FARHADI: Thank you.

KELLY: We've been speaking with director Asghar Farhadi, speaking through an interpreter about his new film "A Hero." It is Iran's official selection for the Oscars, and it's in theaters now.

(SOUNDBITE OF PANTHA DU PRINCE'S "SATELLITE SNYPER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.