A Hero (Cert 12)

Theatrical/VOD (Distributor: Amazon Prime) Running Time: 128 minutes approx.

“Do the right thing”. A moral dilemma with no correct answer – circumstances will differ and sometimes doing what should be done could make matter worse for someone else, whether morally justified or not. Alternatively, doing the right thing may not be the best thing for you.

Rahim (Amir Jadidi), serving a prison sentence for an unpaid debt to ex-brother-in-law Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), is on two days leave. His secret girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), who found a handbag with 17 pieces of gold in it, which they hope will clear the debt. The gold is valued at half the total which Bahram refuses to accept, and when with Rahim due back in prison, he has an idea.

He puts out notices for the owner of the bag to come forward, and a woman claims it via Rahim’s sister Malileh (Maryam Shahdaie). Rahim is deemed a hero for his noble deed, and ensured a prison release, which Bahram begrudgingly endorses. Rahim gets a job offer at the council offices but a rumour casting doubt over the veracity of the story has HR manager Nadeali (Ehsan Goodarzi) insist Rahim prove it is true before hiring him.

Of all the Iranian filmmakers with something to say about their country, Asghar Farhadi is perhaps the calmest, in that one can feel the pointed opprobrium in the works of Jafar Panahi seething from every frame. Farhadi tends to remain composed letting the story slowly unravel and get under our skin, adding layers of ill judgement and misdeed until we, not the characters, are fit to burst.

A Hero works on these lines except tempers do flare by the end, but not in the usual man vs. the system way. Farhadi doesn’t introduce the hindrance of the system until the second half, opting to keep the dispute between two ordinary men with a personal grudge. That said, we do wonder what sort of country jails a man just for being in debt, something I suppose this film answers.

Bahram loaned Rahim 150,000 toman to start his own business but his partner fled with the money. Rahim is clearly not culpable but Bahram, who sold his daughter Nazanin’s (Sarina Farhadi) dowry to raise the money, believes otherwise. Rather than the sensible option of letting Rahim get a job to repay the money, Rahim is jailed – Iran apparently prefers punitive measures to productive ones.

When Rahim becomes a local hero following a TV news interview, Bahram refuses to celebrate, arguing why they should lionise someone who did what any decent person would do – and to be fair, he has a point. Not everybody who does good is rewarded with such fanfare, although Bahram’s personal gripe paints him as a jealous curmudgeon, who bows to pressure from the charity to support Rahim’s release.

Farhadi straddles a very fine line in positing Rahim as a victim of circumstance who may just also have a sly side behind his gentle smile, as the film slides into what could be seen as satire territory. The key to this is his young son, Siavash (Saleh Karimaei) with his speech impediment; put this stuttering cherub before the public to struggle over expressing pride in his father and watch their hearts melt. Blatant exploitation at its most basic yet who will deny a hard up family a moment of good fortune?

Saivash assumes the role of secret weapon on a few occasions when Rahim needs to turn the tide in his favour, and since the boy has no real agency beyond his impediment, it becomes harder for the audience to discern if Rahim is using his son out of cynicism or desperation. In the case of proving the story to Nadeali, we know which details are embellished and which parts are true; unfortunately for Rahim, the woman who claimed the gold has disappeared!

In the hands of anyone else, this would be farcical but Farhadi is a master at getting the audience emotionally invested in his characters and this is no exception. Echoing the classic Bicycle Thieves, Rahim and Siavish traverse the city in search of the woman, each lead proving fruitless. So, Rahim opts once again to hoodwink his way out of trouble, the cloak of ambiguity causing us to question if he is right to protect his honour this way.

This isn’t even the end of it – Rahim’s damage control plan only serves to exacerbate his problems leading to a physical showdown with Bahram, filmed by Nazanin with the threat of sharing it on social media. The irony is that it boils down to who stands to lose the most face if the video gets out – Rahim, the charity, the prison – with all prior goodwill no longer a consideration.

Quite how we got to this point stemming from an unpaid debt is a testament to Farhadi’s talent as a writer and his ability to spin the most remarkable yarns from the simplest of threads. For us outside of Iran, the idea a debt can lead to jail is absurd but Farhadi shows us a world where this is fact, and the journey to redemption is just as convoluted for us to fathom but again fits in within this cultural context.

Under Farhadi’s skilful direction, Amir Jadidi imbues Rahim with a passivity and humility befitting a man trying to escape an unjust punishment, his near permanent serenity is quite disarming, but so is his later, volatile demeanour which may expose his true nature yet his humanity remains a constant no matter how close to the brink of self-destruction he is.

Jubilantly returning to form following a stint in Spain, A Hero is Farhadi bringing Iran’s archaic foibles up to date for the social media generation, via another plausibly complex moral labyrinth with no easy destination, revealing a country hidebound to many gnarly issues and attitudes that need urgent attention for fixing. Deceptively clever and astutely powerful as ever, Farhadi has does it again.  


Rating – ****

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