Film Review – A Hero
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero (2021) is simply brilliant. It is an intricate examination of how decency, compassion, and honor can bend in the face of desperation. Just as he did in his Oscar-winning A Separation (2011), Farhadi paints his narrative so that there are no good guys or bad guys, but fully rounded humans. These are people who, when put under tremendous strain, can commit acts of selflessness or reveal their weaknesses. It is that quality that makes the story so engaging and thought provoking. We can see the perspective of each character. Farhadi doesn’t ask us to side with one or the other, but to simply understand.
Farhadi’s writing is sensational, crafting a narrative that twists and turns with escalating tension. He spends the entire first half setting up his dominoes and in the second tips them over. Watching the drama build to a peak and then shatter into pieces is like watching a masterclass of storytelling. Farhadi introduces us to Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a father and divorcee who is serving a prison sentence for an unpaid debt. While on a two-day reprieve, Rahim – along with his girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust) – take a handbag full of gold coins she found to an appraiser. They hope that the gold is enough to pay off Rahim’s creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), who will only accept the debt paid off in full. When they find out that the gold isn’t worth as much as anticipated, Rahim decides to return the bag to its owner.
It is this single display of goodwill that tosses Rahim’s world into a tailspin. Once word of Rahim’s selfless act spreads, he gets tossed into a cavalcade of people all wanting to share in his adulation. The prison holds a press conference to show how their system has “rehabilitated” him. Rahim gets interviewed by a news station and a local charity sets up a fund in hopes of raising enough money to set him free. People on the street congratulate him on a job well done. All the while, Bahram remains steadfast in his insistence that he gets paid what is owed.
All of this seems straightforward, but that is beauty of Farhadi’s craftsmanship. He sets us up with a specific angle only to challenge it in the back half. Rahim’s façade starts to unravel at the seams. People question the validity of his story – whether he actually did return the gold or if he just made the whole thing up. An HR employee refuses to give him a job without confirming the truth of his good deed. Questions arise over Rahim’s past and his inability to pay off his debt. Those who were by his side during his high point try to disassociate with him when things turn sour. Rahim uses a certificate gifted by the charity to gain favor from strangers and drags his son (Saleh Karimaei) – who suffers from a stutter and learning disability – to gain further sympathy. Does Rahim do these things intentionally? When the owner of the bag mysteriously disappears, Rahim scrambles to do whatever he can to save face. The act that brought him notoriety turns to the very thing that could potentially ruin his life.
Farhadi’s direction never goes for big, melodramatic moments. He opts for a natural tone, relying on the strength of the writing and the performances to pull out the emotions. Rahim’s journey is a rollercoaster spurned by how easy he can step into the spotlight. Amir Jadidi gives an incredible performance, filling Rahim with sensitivity and charisma. He can make us side with him with his hangdog appearance, looking so forlorn that a gust of wind could knock him over. It’s that apparent innocence that probably got Rahim in trouble to begin with, making promises he couldn’t keep and taking out loans he couldn’t repay. Although much of the anguish Rahim suffers from is his own doing, we’re never made to believe that he is a bad person. He only looks too far ahead, trying to skip from “Step One” to “Step Ten” without focusing on the details along the way.
I’ve seen A Hero twice now. The first time, I was drawn in by Rahim’s predicament and how everything he gained slipped away. With the second viewing, my attention turned to Bahram. In a lesser movie, Bahram would be considered the villain, but here he is just as dynamic and empathetic as everyone else. Tanabandeh gives an equally excellent performance in comparison to Jadidi. He molds Bahram with frustration, anger, and weariness. Bahram sacrificed just as much as Rahim, and when Rahim couldn’t pay back his loan, Bahram’s family suffered for it. His teeth clench and his arms fold when he must witness an entire community celebrating Rahim for returning the gold. What is so noble about returning someone’s property? Why should people pat Rahim on the back when he is serving a prison sentence? Why is Bahram the bad guy when Rahim exploits his son’s disabilities in front of others? When Rahim and Bahram confront each other, we see two characters both suffering from financial hardships, doing whatever they can to keep afloat.
There is an early scene where we see Rahim climb a high scaffolding. The ascension is slow and methodical. In the following scene, Farkhondeh descends a flight of stairs, skipping along as the editing quickens her pace down to the ground. These two sequences act as the central allegory of A Hero. For as much trust and faith we build amongst our family, friends, and coworkers, the slightest lie can cause everything to come tumbling down. In a society where reputation and honor mean everything, gossip and mob mentality can switch things around at the drop of a hat. How Farhadi demonstrates this is masterful, both in execution and insight. This is filmmaking at its best.