I can picture a good number of Americans watching Asghar Farhadi's A Hero and mumbling to themselves gratitude that such situations couldn't possibly occur here, though such a conclusion is absurd. In Iran, perhaps, the truth is simply more upfront and transparent. In Iran, being in debt is, essentially, a crime. In the United States, as well, the institutions designed to serve have instead been manipulated by the powers that be to punish those most in need of building up.
In other words, the debtor's prison in Asghar Farhadi's Iran-set A Hero is not that far removed from daily life here in the U.S.
That makes A Hero both riveting and frightening.
In the film, Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is in a debtor's prison subject to the whims of his ex-brother-in-law Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), who has the power to honor a request to release Rahim from prison having been offered a sizeable down payment on the debt along with a guarantee of regular payments once Rahim is again able to find work. However, for a tapestry of reasons personal, professional, and loosely justice related, Bahram is not inclined to do so and is content to have Rahim stay in the prison as a result of the money he had loaned Rahim to pay off loan sharks.
If you can sense it, the story is already getting complicated.
A Hero gets more complicated when Rahim's secret girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), finds a purse on the street while spending time with Rahim during one of his rare two-day releases. At first tempted, Rahim is convinced to try to return the purse and its occupying gold coins when he and Farkhondeh learn that the amount inside will not absolve his debt. He seemingly goes to great effort to identify the grateful owner, an effort that is recognized by the system that surrounds him and decides to build up his heroics as a man of great debt who still does the right thing.
A Hero is a complicated film about the complications that arise when we both build up our heroes and then subsequently tear them down.
The story itself becomes increasingly tweaked to benefit the needs of each person and institution in the chain - Rahim himself, the prison, a social service agency working to raise money to release Rahim from his debt, Bahram himself, and others. In turn, the truth gets lost amidst it all and no one is without blame. However, there is one, essentially, without the power.
In moments, A Hero feels familiar. This occurs partly because we've all seen this scenario play out in social media and partly because Farhadi has become a master at portraying complicated stories that refuse to rescue anyone or to create easy answers. The truth is there are no easy heroes here - nearly everyone involved is trying to do both the right thing and the wrong thing.
Amir Jadidi is riveting here. If there were any justice, he'd find himself amongst the discussion for a Best Actor Oscar. However, if there's one thing we've learned in A Hero it's that there's very little actual justice. Farhadi himself deserves to be in the discussion for original screenplay, his work here intelligent, insightful, and intuitive with a story that feels familiar yet also constantly feels fresh.
Sahar Goldust is equally riveting. On the flip side, Mohsen Tanabandeh builds such a performance that it is impossible to demonize a man who is simply living out exactly what the system has designed for him to do. Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy is also measured and mesmerizing as Mme. Radmehr, whose social agency has worked for years to be a trustworthy organization and now sees that work going down the drain if unable to successfully resolve a very difficult situation.
Lensing by Ali Ghazi and Arash Ramezani is crisp and immersive. I was constantly struck by just how universal these images felt. Negar Nemati's costume design work is also exceptional here.
A Hero is once again Asghar Farhadi as a master at work. It is a fiercely compelling and intelligent film that allows a complicated story to be complicated. Farhadi refuses to compromise his artistic integrity and the film is much better for it. Winner of the Grand Prix and Francois Chalais Awards at Cannes, A Hero is another must-see film from Farhadi and, just perhaps, his best screenplay to date.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic