What’s the price of having a conscience? Iranian master Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero spirals out a good deed to all its messy conclusions, providing fertile ground for the filmmaker’s command of aesthetic realism and closeknit interpersonal dynamics. Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a jailed debtor, returns a bag filled with money that he found on leave to its rightful and desperate owner. The consequences from that act, pushed and prodded and wheedled by Farhadi’s script—which adds a deft understanding of social media Milkshake Ducking to a sharply constructed web of relationships and reputations—are an endurance test for the tear ducts. A modern parable weighted by the piling baggage of people, of governments, of cultures, A Hero’s savage irony isn’t just that a specific act of benevolence goes punished, but that it’s in the nature of everything humankind has built to do so.
To convey this, Farhadi puts together a social Rube Goldberg machine, where interconnected dependencies, power imbalances and guarded secrets careen towards each other like marbles rolling down expertly engineered PVC pipes. It’s not just that Rahim is imprisoned for failing to pay his debts to the hard-nosed, pushed-too-far copy store owner Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), it’s that the unforgiving Bahram is also the brother-in-law of Rahim’s ex-wife. It’s not just that Rahim initially plans to use his found bounty of literal gold to pay off his debts, it’s that he conspires to do so with his loving brother-in-law Hossein (Alireza Jahandideh) and his fiancée Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), the later of whom actually found the misplaced loot in the first place. It’s from these complications, these prickly personal relationships which breed white lies and omissions of details, that A Hero’s brilliant tension springs. We can see every bad development coming, and it just makes it worse.
Rahim gets the good favor of his warden. That takes a turn. He becomes a country-wide symbol of morality. That also backfires. The ensuing legal battle, fact-checking, veneration and demonization of Rahim and his small act of kindness highlights hypocrisy in the bureaucracies of nonprofits and law, and in the intricacies of parenthood (Rahim desperately tries to avoid exploiting his young son’s stutter) and love. These conflicts manifest as the disconnectedly picturesque Tomb of Xerxes marred by an endless bony tower of modern scaffolding ogled with a neck-breaking tilt up and up and up. They manifest as the backstabbing lifeline that is the prevalence of smartphones, locking up the attention of his son and allowing everyone’s worst moments to spread as quickly and easily as a pandemic. They manifest as a heartbreakingly divided late-night gap between father and son that Farhadi frames as insuperable despite how near they may literally be. Regardless of whether the symbol is majestic or pedestrian, honest and benevolent connection (to the past and to each other) is never shot as an impossibility, but as something that takes so much work as to kill even the best of us—or at least to turn our hair gray and make us wish we’d done more cardio.
This doomed, imperfect nobility is the biggest ask for Jadidi, but his big toothy smile and world-beaten posture allow him to find the perfect amounts of charm (whether genuine or Ben Affleck in Gone Girl levels of off-putting) or pathos. Goldust, Jahandideh and Maryam Shahdaei make the film a truly potent ensemble drama, while Farhadi’s daughter, Sarina Farhadi, has a memorably acidic return to the screen a decade since her last role, in Farhadi’s A Separation.
A Hero’s charged title may make you think of its status as a subversive and unambiguously constructed fable. It reminded me of the refrain from Drive’s lasting track “A Real Hero,” which has been claimed for internet irony: “A real human being / And a real hero.” Rahim is nobody special. But he’s a real human being, which means the same thing it means for the rest of us: That his actions will be misread, that his intentions will be overanalyzed, that his flaws will be exploited. Farhadi finds something bitterly heroic about these inevitabilities. His dedication to the narrative’s unrelenting need to brutally reconstitute Rahim’s lemonade back into the lemons life gave him in the first place reflects the same stubbornness found in his hero. His hero suffers—due to his foibles, his pride and his place in the world—but his commitment to bits that keep biting him isn’t divine or even particularly devout, just relatable enough to help the bittersweet film transcend as sublimely humanist.
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Writers: Asghar Farhadi
Stars: Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabandeh, Alireza Jahandideh, Sahar Goldoost, Fereshteh Sadr Orafaie, Sarina Farhadi
Release Date: January 7, 2022 (theaters); January 21, 2022 (Amazon)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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