A Hero will debut in theaters on Jan. 7 and stream on Prime Video on Jan. 21.
No good deed goes unpunished in A Hero, the latest emotional labyrinth from Iranian neo-realist virtuoso Asghar Farhadi. Its winding story follows calligrapher Rahim (Amir Jadidi), an inmate on temporary prison leave who chances upon a purse full of gold coins, which he eventually returns to its owner, instead of using it to pay off the enormous debt that landed him behind bars. This apparent sacrifice leads to a minor media storm, with Rahim and the audience seated unsteadily in its eye — a place of eerie, temporary calm — awaiting an unrelenting gust of doubters and envious spectators, who threaten to knock him off his reluctant pedestal. As the film slowly builds to this eventuality, it introduces a cavalcade of nuanced characters, each at odds with Rahim (or with each other), each with their own agendas, and each brought to life through Farhadi’s measured naturalism, resulting in a quiet work that screams with piercing anxiety.
The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd astutely compared its plot to Twitter’s “Milkshake Duck” phenomenon, in reference to a joke about overnight micro-celebrities in the internet age (for instance, Ken Bone), whose fame is swiftly followed by people digging up old posts and opinions to cast doubt on their moral character — justifiably or otherwise. Social media may not be the prime focus of A Hero, but it comes up plenty, and writer-director Farhadi zeroes in on the deeply flawed, deeply human motivations that often lead to such scenarios, on all sides of the equation.
Winter 2022 Movies: The 30 Most Anticipated Films
A key reason it works is its radiant ensemble anchored by Jadidi, whose eyes immediately engender sympathy whenever they light up, either in the presence of Rahim’s son, Siavash (Saleh Karimai); his sister, Mali (Maryam Shahdaei) and her family; or his secret girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), with whom he shares an excitingly sweet on-screen dynamic. However, while Rahim and Farkhondeh’s subdued grins light up the screen, a dark cloud hangs over them in the form of his fed-up creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), a print shop owner and the brother-in-law of Rahim’s ex-wife, who has a low opinion of him to begin with.
Bahram is just the first of several characters who try to poke holes in Rahim’s story, with more and more people casting doubt on him when the woman who claims the purse is suddenly nowhere to be found, and therefore, unable to verify Rahim’s heroism. With this indignity foisted upon him, in the form of unending questions that — intentionally or otherwise — cast doubt on his character, Rahim grows silently weary, and Jadidi speaks volumes with his burdened silence. In the meantime, several organizations, from charitable trusts to the prison administrators, all hitch their wagons to Rahim’s good deed, and so their eager claims of association with him soon turn bitter once rumors about the story’s veracity, and about Rahim’s past, begin circulating online. These people may not be his literal creditors, but they feel owed a moral debt.
Several of Farhadi’s films (like the French-language Le Passé, and his Best International Feature Oscar winners The Salesman and A Separation) build their quiet intensity through the slow unraveling of a central lie. What is perhaps most stunning about A Hero is that it follows that template to a tee, except Rahim’s story is far more truth than fiction. Farhadi’s characters usually tell even more lies in order to cover up the truth, and Rahim is similarly forced to concoct a number of dishonest ploys in order to protect his original, mostly truthful story with the help of his family, Farkhondeh, and the cab driver who drove the purse’s now-missing owner to Rahim’s home. This kindly Samaritan is willing to bend the truth if it helps Rahim because he was once an inmate as well, and he knows first-hand the unwashable moral stain that society forces prisoners to carry.
The story, in this way, unfolds at the thorny intersection of social and legal justice — and of retributive and restorative justice — with a litany of opinions flying about, on the ways Rahim should or shouldn’t be perceived, or helped, or punished, but few of these opinions are his own. The prison administrators help facilitate Rahim’s media spotlight, and they have nothing but nice words to say about him when their facility is granted airtime, but they’re still ultimately taking advantage of a prisoner — a man whose freedom and humanity they’re charged with controlling — so there’s a limit to their kindness. Bahram and his daughter, Nazanin (Sarina Farhadi), though they’re owed a hefty sum, have personal gripes against Rahim as well, so the ensuing domino effect of his story is rooted in complications and unpleasantries that we’re only privy to second-hand.
Ours is but a singular, blinkered vantage of Rahim, a snapshot of who he is in a moment in time, and the film even gets us to doubt his story, despite us having seen most of it play out in front of our eyes (“most” is the key word here, leaving a sliver of doubt). Similarly, each secondary character builds their own version of Rahim based on the information available to them, whether his actions in the present, the sins of his past, a video of him at his worst, or his ready admission that he was, in fact, tempted to sell the coins to pay off his debts before taking a different path. This deeply human complication clashes with the saintly image other people paint of him — and eventually, with the more devious image as well. The way people see Rahim is not all that different from glancing at a tweet and believing you can extrapolate the other 99% of who someone is from a mere 280 characters.
As each new vulnerability enters the spotlight, from Rahim’s relationship, to his son’s stutter, it begins to feel like yet another potential point of attack for his detractors. Soon, even A Hero’s chipper moments begin to feel like tragedies in waiting; a scene in which another character coaches Siavash to sing his father’s praises on camera is indistinguishable from a hostage video. The more Rahim explains his story, the more he exposes his family and his inner self to the whims of other people — and the more they assault him with intellectually dishonest questions, and suggestions of all the things he “could have” and “should have” done to anticipate his unprecedented circumstances. One such line of questioning comes from a potential employer played by Ehsan Goodarzi, whole scenes expose the absurdity of the red tape Rahim is forced to navigate, while also building to an equally absurd amount of unease (an everyman hero needs an everyman villain, and Goodarzi’s imposing H.R. rep is as stressful and nauseating as they come).
Farhadi’s patience with each scene cuts to the heart of the characters around Rahim, whose behavior subtly reveals what they hope to gain from him, and why. The result is an uncanny narrative tension: the more we get to know these people, the more their interactions with Rahim begin to betray their true intentions; the more they reveal their humanity, the more they leech on his, reducing him to little more than a symbol or an opportunity. Farhadi is almost too expert a dramatist; his control of narrative is so precise that you almost want to shut the door on these other characters, instead of watching them navigate their natural habitat.
As with most of this other work, Farhadi needs little to no score to enhance or complement his story. Jadidi’s performance is the music; his every thought, glance, smile, and subtle worry roots us in a tangible emotional present, while simultaneously guiding our expectations for what’s to come. There’s a surprising seamlessness to the way Farhadi and editor Hayedeh Safiyari weave between people, starting with comfortable group shots before punching in to close ups — not during intense moments, but just before them, while conversations are still casual and familial, but begin to approach the precipice of something more serious. Other than a few hand-held murmurs, the camera rarely moves beyond minor tilts or pans, but it feels constantly on edge in the process of anticipating each dramatic beat.
The Best Director of a Movie in 2021
Ali Ghazi and Arash Ramezani join Farhadi as cinematographers. The trio’s visual fabric creates a sense of suffocation around Rahim’s optimism. The film opens with him leaving prison and visiting a relative who works in archeological restoration (at Naqsh-e Rostam), but rather than capturing the open space of the surrounding landscape, or the enormity of the carved cliffside, the camera obscures Rahim’s approach behind the site’s scaffolding, trapping him behind bars; his freedom is temporary, and the label of “prisoner” follows him wherever he goes.
Several of Rahim’s scenes take place at Barham’s shop, in a marketplace filled with windows and glass. When he tries to repay his debts, and when he gets into arguments over past transgressions, his worst moments and vulnerabilities are on full display. At one point, he’s even trapped in a glass room, an exhibit for all the world to observe and discuss. Jadidi works tirelessly to imbue Rahim with a moving humanity, but his personhood is placed under a microscope at every turn, and threatened by people, systems, and a sensationalist media environment designed to mold him, manipulate him, and ultimately, discard him — the same forces that also led Farhadi to speak out against his government and demand the film be rescinded as Iran’s Oscar entry.
Though what is most terrifying about A Hero is not just what happens to Rahim, a character deeply endeared to us from the beginning, but rather, that the impulses behind what is done to him — from burning jealousies, to desires for vindication, to the self-righteous pursuit of justice wherever it can be mined — are just as lucid and relatable. Either side of this story could so easily be ours.