Amir Hossein Shojaei / Amazon Studios
In Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece, The game’s rules, a famous character: “What’s horrible in life is this: everyone has their reasons.”
Few contemporary filmmakers have taken Renoir’s words to heart more than Asghar Farhadi, who tells rigorous but compassionate stories in which people’s motivations are always more complicated than they appear. This is absolutely the case in Farhadi’s new film, A hero, a gripping moral drama about what happens when a seemingly good deed turns unexpectedly wrong.
It takes place in the Iranian city of Shiraz, where an unlucky man named Rahim, played by Amir Jadidi, is serving three years in prison for debt. At the start of the film, Rahim goes out on a two-day leave and returns home to spend time with his family, including his young son from a previous marriage. Rahim also has a girlfriend who recently found a purse on the street with 17 gold coins, which they are trying to sell in hopes of paying Rahim’s creditor, the one who keeps him behind bars.
But when they discover that the coins are not worth enough to cover his debts, the cunning Rahim hatches a ploy to rehabilitate his image. He posts flyers all over town trying to track down the owner of the bag, and of course, a woman soon shows up and claims the coins as his. With a few clever calculations on his part, Rahim makes sure his act of being a Good Samaritan is widely known and that his story is making headlines and social media. A charity begins to raise funds on its behalf. Even the prison, where he returns after his leave is over, is grateful for the positive attention.
Farhadi examines this media circus with a skeptical eye, and you know it’s only a matter of time before the other shoe falls off. Not everyone buys Rahim’s story – certainly not his creditor and former brother-in-law, Bahram, who lost a lot of money in one of Rahim’s failed business ventures and doesn’t trust him at all .
A simpler movie could have criticized Bahram for not being more forgiving, but Farhadi treats him with fairness and sympathy. It is Bahram who asks the sharpest question in history: Why do we applaud people for doing the right thing, rather than just expecting them to do it?
Soon after, other people begin to question the exaggerations and inconsistencies in Rahim’s story. The woman who claimed the bag suddenly disappears and people wonder if she really existed. Even in the face of adversity, Rahim tends to fall back on a charming, eager to please smile, but Jadidi’s superb performance – the anchor of a formidable ensemble cast – subtly reveals the character’s growing desperation as his plan falls apart dramatically.
A hero is Farhadi’s strongest film since A separation, and like this triumph of 2011, it begins by delivering the narrative pleasures of a great detective story and ends up resembling an X-ray of Iranian society.
Farhadi is not as aggressive a filmmaker as some of his peers, like Jafar Panâhi and Mohammad Rasoulof, who have been persecuted by the Iranian government for their work. But the social criticism is there. Farhadi reveals the injustices of the country’s prison system, and he is as always attentive to gender inequalities. More than once in this film, men make rash decisions and women end up paying the price. Farhadi also lays bare the cogs of a moralizing society where virtue, or the perception of virtue, is the real currency of the kingdom. And he shows us how institutions, even well-meaning ones, like the charity that helps Rahim, tap into people’s inspiring stories.
There is nothing inspiring A hero, whose title begs to be read with irony. But while Farhadi is a pessimist about human nature, he is not a cynic, nor does he rule out the possibility of genuine hard-earned heroism. Some of the film’s most moving scenes show Rahim trying to reconnect with his son and protect him from the consequences of shame and scandal – and taking him out of the media spotlight. The truest acts of decency, Farhadi reminds us, are rarely performed in front of a camera – except, perhaps, a camera as perceptive as his.