“They’re saying I’m lying. I didn’t lie,” Rahim (a charmingly shaggy Amir Jadidi) laments in Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s latest drama A Hero.
“But you didn’t tell the truth,” answers the warden of the prison where Rahim has spent the last three years due to an unpaid debt. The semantics of this exchange underscore the ever-shifting power dynamics of truth and honor under the weight of which Rahim struggles throughout the film. In this world where honor and respectability are everything, one tiny miscalculation has immeasurable ramifications.
Rahim is out on a two-day leave when he and his girlfriend Farkhondeh (a fiery Sahar Goldoost) plot a scheme to get him out for good. Farkhondeh has found a purse with 17 gold coins in it, which they plan to sell. When the gold dealer appraises them for less than they need, they have second thoughts and decide to try to find the purse’s owner.
News of this “good deed” spreads to the management of his prison, who are in need of some good PR after a prisoner recently took their own life due to its poor conditions. To save his girlfriend’s reputation, the warden suggests Rahim fib about who actually found the bag. This small white lie grows; each time Rahim recalls the story to the newspaper, to a TV crew, to a charity, he elaborates more and more until the whole thing becomes a shaky house of cards ready to collapse at any moment.
Like many a film noir, the plot hinges on a simple couple out of their depth. When presented with multiple courses of action, Rahim continually chooses the worst thing to do, always compounding the trouble he finds himself in; for example, when presented with a citation from the community council when a charity attempts to fundraise to pay off his debt, Rahim chooses to use his son’s speech impediment to elicit further sympathy from the crowd.
It would be easy to compare the A Hero to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, with both films featuring fathers in slippery, desperate financial situations while taking care of their sons. But where De Sica’s film shines a light on the realities of poverty in post-war Italy, his characters have a patina of innocence about them. Antonio is a desperate father whose situation is made worse by forces outside his control, and in the end De Sica finds a moral purity in his lead.
By integrating Rahim’s creditor Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh) into the story, we get a more complex portrait of who Rahim was before the film began and how he found himself in this situation to begin with. It’s less a series of forces outside his control, and more a series of bad decisions made out of desperation. There is no clear moral center in this story. No purity – at least not amongst the adult characters. Jadidi’s Rahim is a nice guy, all affable smiles whose “hangdog look” helps him charm those around him, but who always seems to take the easy way out or play angles way beyond his abilities. Tanabandeh plays Bahram not as a straight villain, but as a man whose frustration has hit its limit. Their intertwined story is like a six-sided die, whose complete faces only each other have seen.
When Rahim returns to prison, a fellow inmate confronts him, insisting, “You cover up their shit for free.” Up until that moment he had not considered that the prison was using his story to help their reputation. Throughout the film Farhadi is acutely aware how all the systems in place – the prison, the charity, the council – use Rahim’s story to spin gold for themselves. Unfortunately for Rahim, what he doesn’t realize is that when all the spinning plates come crashing down, all the blame will lay squarely at his feet.
While Rahim’s fate remains at the center of the story, Farhadi builds a complex ensemble cast showcasing how honor and respectability in this community do not just affect one person, but their entire extended family as well, while also asking those characters to interrogate what those concepts even really mean. As in his earlier film A Separation, Farhadi puts the minor decisions of these various characters under a microscope in order to magnify the cracks within societal structures. What seem like throwaway pieces of dialogue reveal deep hypocrisies held by those with the most power.
“How is he a hero?” Bahram challenges after the newscycle bestows the designation on Rahim. Farhadi dissects not only the very idea of a public-facing hero, but also the notion that heroism is something that can be witnessed by others, rather than the internal knowledge that one has truly acted in a selfless manner for the good of others beyond themself.
“A Hero” is in theaters Friday. It streams January 21st on Amazon Prime.