Nothing and no one are as they seem in Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero,” a drama that examines its characters’ ethics with all the tension of a thriller. The writer and director’s latest film, Iran’s entry to this year’s Academy Awards, kicks off with a deceptively simple premise. Rahim Soltani (Amir Jadidi) has been imprisoned for his inability to repay a debt. He uses his two-day leave from jail to try to settle up with his creditor, his ex-wife’s brother-in-law and print shop owner Hossein (Ali Reza Jahandideh), and obtain his freedom. Naturally, nothing goes as he planned.
Rahim’s chance at solving all his problems comes in the form of a purse full of gold coins that his girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldoust), found at a bus stop. Quickly shifting gears after plans to sell the coins for cash to repay Hossein fall through, Rahim decides the best thing to do is try to return the bag to its owner. Rahim is praised for his good deed from the prison officials; he’s interviewed on the news, and essentially goes viral, prompting a lot of people to start donating the funds to help obtain his release. But was it a true act of kindness, or a calculated effort to free himself? Farhadi’s screenplay and Jadidi’s performance keep us guessing throughout. Jadidi’s winning smile and affable demeanor make Rahim appear like a decent guy who just got caught in a bad deal. But then there are moments where he gets an edge in his voice, and, when pressed hard enough, explodes in violent anger. There are reasons for why he wants out of jail besides merely the fact that he wants his freedom. His ex-wife is remarrying. He wants to marry Farkhondeh, whose family does not approve of him. And his son, Siavash (Saleh Karimai), is struggling through a speech impediment while living with Rahim’s sister Malileh (Maryam Shandaie) and her family.
The thing with “A Hero” is that Rahim is not the only person whose honor is called into question. The prison officials exploit their Good Samaritan because Rahim makes them look good, and donations come flooding in. Rahim’s family is willing to help keep up the charade on his behalf. On the flip side, Hossein’s unwillingness to let Rahim’s debt go initially feels overly stingy, but we soon start to think that maybe he has a point, and maybe he has a deeper reason for disliking Rahim. And Hossein isn’t the only one; Rahim is confronted by a fellow prisoner who sees through his game, while a skeptical potential employer refuses to hire Rahim until he meticulously combs through all the facts of his case. “A Hero” also skewers the manner in which these feel-good stories are frequently built up in the media in this way. Everyone is so quick to build up the tale of Rahim’s good deed. News outlets jump on it. It spreads on social media like wildfire. Rahim becomes something of an overnight celebrity, but only a few see through it all. The majority of people aren’t willing to probe deeper; there’s a tendency to latch on to any sliver of positive news that makes so many of us block out any detail that could indicate otherwise. Less optimistically, there’s the snowball effect that Rahim’s popularity has on everyone associated with him. The news, the prison charity, his family—everyone benefits.
Remarkably, even though we’re never sure of anyone’s true motives or who we can trust, we still root for Rahim on some level. “A Hero” becomes increasingly anxiety-inducing as events increasingly spiral out of control, and what started out as a hopeful situation fast becomes hopeless. Schemer or not, it’s hard not to feel for the guy. Farhadi’s past films, including his previous Oscar winners “A Separation” and “The Salesman,” have used the intersections of class to examine his characters’ morality, and “A Hero,” where it feels like even the most minor characters have a complex backstory just waiting to rise to the surface, is no different. It’s assumed that Hossein is a prosperous enough entrepreneur, and he holds Rahim’s fate in the palm of his hands; a sum of money is the only thing separating them, the main object preventing Rahim from moving forward, from being successful.
The conclusion to “A Hero,” following an excruciating series of events in which there never seems to be a right choice in any given situation, is both inevitable and perfect, and Farhadi frames the final shot, contrasting freedom and entrapment in a single frame, beautifully. In fact, the entire setting of the story works to the its advantage, the bustling marketplace where Hossein’s shop is located contributing to the fraught nature of Rahim’s every encounter with him, the cozy warmth of his sister’s home feeling distinct from the cold prison, the labyrinthine streets making Rahim’s journey to freedom seem that much more meandering. “A Hero” is one of Farhadi’s most intricate and impressive works to date, one that leaves you mulling over the characters and the decisions they made long after the final credits disappear off the screen.
“A Hero” is now playing in theaters and will be streaming on Amazon Prime Video beginning January 21. Runtime: 127 minutes. Rated PG-13.