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“They’re saying I lied,” one character says in A Hero. “I didn’t.” Another responds, “But you didn’t tell the truth.” Such is the complex moral universe reflected in the work of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi. He makes social dramas that start out simple and clear and then slowly peels back the layers of their moral dilemmas to reveal an endless series of irreconcilable contradictions.
A Hero is the story of Rahim (Amir Jadidi), who has served three years in a debtor’s prison in Shiraz, Iran, after failing to repay a loan to his ex-wife’s brother. When his new fiancée finds a handbag filled with gold coins, they believe a miracle has occurred. On two-day leave, he offers it to his creditor (Mohsen Tanabandeh), who refuses to let him out on only a partial payment, so instead Rahim finds and returns the money to its proper owner. His prison administrators find out and, desperate for some good press about their inmates—no one behaves entirely altruistically in A Hero—they pitch Rahim to the local news as a model of rehabilitation. Rahim agrees, thinking perhaps Allah works in mysterious ways.
But no good goes unscrutinized in a film by Farhadi, who similarly probed the nuances of justice in A Separation and The Salesman. Once Rahim is lionized by the press, the world seems intent on tearing him down. With the assistance of a local charity, he is granted a release from prison, but rumors begin to spread on social media that Rahim’s story was a concoction to earn good will and facilitate his release from prison. Wherever he goes, suspicion follows, and his jubilation curdles into bitter defensiveness, eventually threatening to transform his newfound freedom into another kind of a prison.
Initially, we take Rahim’s side; after all, we saw him decide to return the gold with our own eyes. But the film carefully unwraps the simplistic narrative Rahim offers to the media until we’re not sure if he’s even a good person, let alone the hero he claims to be. Farhadi doesn’t accomplish this conspicuously. There are no Tarantinian narrative tricks to play with our sense of perspective, or even any dramatic moments in which a character is caught in a lie. It’s the best kind of direction for a story that reflects real life: invisible. He never draws attention to how his hands have shaped the story, but instead simply portrays the perspective of each character so clearly and thoughtfully that the emerging conflict feels entirely earned and thrillingly dramatic.
Farhadi’s style is quiet naturalism, so he relies heavily on his cast to connect. Every actor finds just the right frequency, but Jadidi deserves special praise for his portrayal of Rahim. There’s a version of this story in which Rahim is a good man who suffers Job-like trials, but Farhadi is more skeptical of his fellow man. “I was once fooled by his hangdog look, and that’s enough,” his creditor says of him, and we can relate. Jadidi keeps his eyes downcast and his voice soft. With a polite smile perpetually plastered on his face, he is initially impossible to think badly of. But his pose never changes as he justifies himself with half-truths and subtle insults at his accusers, and we start to question its earnestness. It’s a precise performance that he holds for a full two hours, balancing on the line between honesty and deception, between moral courage and a pathology of victimhood.
Without spoiling the ending, it’s fair to say that A Hero doesn’t conclude by taking a decisive stance on Rahim’s moral character. We don’t get off that easy. Instead, it allows the viewer to step back and consider a society in which government officials are more interested in looking good than doing good, women must rely on men to make a living, and charities are responsible for enacting justice. Farhadi himself has a complicated relationship with his government. He has been publicly critical of it, and his work offers a subtle but scathing critique of the Iranian system. Yet his films have won Oscars for Iran, and their artistic success may unintentionally paint a portrait of a country in which free speech can flourish. You can see him process his frustrations through the story of Rahim, but the film’s great success is that it refuses to make him a martyr either. A Hero is an indictment of a system told through the foibles of recognizably flawed people, making it that rarest of documents: a work of both pointed politics and profound human drama.
A Hero will be released in theaters on Jan. 7 and on Amazon Prime Video on Jan. 21.