Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi won all sorts of plaudits a decade ago (including the Foreign Language Oscar) for his Tehran-set divorce drama A Separation. This is a similarly clear-eyed, precise and thrilling work that begins with an endearing but also slightly unreadable man, Ramin (Amir Jadidi) leaving prison on temporary leave. Ramin is serving a sentence for financial crimes after going bankrupt and failing to pay back a loan to his former father-in-law, Braham (Mohsen Tanabandeh). Now back in the city of Shiraz for a few days, Ramin has a chance to pay back some of that money, get his life back on track and regain some of his dignity. Is it a fool’s mission, or a noble break for regained glory?
Ramin’s plan is fragile. It revolves around selling 17 gold coins found abandoned in a handbag by his new partner, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), who picks Ramin up from prison and who Ramin would like to marry – if only he can persuade her brother that he’s not a deadbeat with no prospects. At every turn, judgement calls. Then our own questioning kicks into gear as Ramin’s evolving scheme starts to look a lilttle crazed to anyone with clear eyes.
Disappointed by a fall in the price of gold (although is that the real reason?), Ramin instead decides that celebrity is the way to regain the respect he so sorely needs in all areas of his life, from his financial situation to his relationship with his nervous son (who has a prominent stutter) and various members of his immediate and extended family. Ramin engineers a hero status for himself, declaring that he’s found this treasure and putting up posters everywhere looking for its rightful owner. Soon, he’s on TV, being championed as selfless – a prisoner who decided not to pocket this gold but instead hand it back. Not everyone is convinced. We watch through our hands as Ramin tries desperately to keep up this charade.
So much here rides on pride and dignity: the appearance of respectability is all. Status is key. Perhaps that’s why Ramin digs a grave for himself into which we see him slipping deeper, scratching at the soil walls around him, although almost always with a warm smile, always trying to persuade someone of his worth. Farhadi handles all this brilliantly. It’s tense and thought-provoking throughout. Especially smart is the mist of ambiguity around Ramin’s character that Farhadi never allows fully to clear. That handbag with 17 gold coins: it’s a bit convenient, isn’t it? A too-easy story device? Are we really meant to believe his girlfriend ‘found’ it in the street? Or is the film testing our own cynicism here, our own willingness to damn a man on the basis of his reputation? It’s a superb morality play that immerses us deeply in a society’s values and rituals and keeps us guessing right to its powerful final shot.
In UK cinemas now and on Amazon Prime Jan 21.