Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi crafts engrossing, nagging moral tales without stooping to overt moralizing. Eric Rohmer did the same but set his subtle parables in the provinces of romance and sex. Even Farhadi’s 2011 marriage drama, “A Separation,” was more concerned with situational ethics than erotic entanglements. His new picture, “A Hero,” is set and shot in his home country—his previous film “Everybody Knows,” starring Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, was shot in Spain—where, among other things, debtor’s prison is still a thing.
That’s the place from which Rahim, the ultimately ironical title character, runs as the movie begins. He’s not escaping, he’s on leave. (This movie has already attracted online criticism for depicting its debtor’s prison as rather cushy.) Not only is he on leave, but he’s got a plan for winning his release. Amir Jadidi, who plays the role, has a winning smile. When he’s in hangdog mode—something he gets called out on by those with a low opinion of what they consider his manipulative personality—he looks rather like a trimmed-down Jake Johnson. In any event, he has an energy that may compel a rooting interest.
As for his plan: well, we get it in dribs and drabs, but its fulcrum is a lost handbag with a nice packet of gold coins in it. When Rahim and his devoted girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust) take the coins to be appraised, they get a sinking feeling. The payoff will be far less than what he owes to Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), who also wants a solid guarantee regarding what would be the remainder. Rahim’s been scrambling with relatives and in-laws for some assurances in that respect. The viewer can’t be quite sure if what happens next is spurred by a genuine crisis of conscience, or downheartedness over the overwhelming evidence that the plan isn’t going to work anyway. But Rahim decides to return the handbag rather than cash in its contents.
So begins a no-good-deed-goes-unpunished saga whose novelty derives from the viewer’s uncertainty as to how good the done deed was in the first place. The opportunistic warden of Rahim’s prison learns of his actions and contacts the media, peddling a human interest story. A local council and its attendant charity take interest, and a kind of circus ensues, exhilarating Rahim—and snaring the truculent Bahram. The site of Tanabandeh keeping his arms crossed so tight you couldn’t separate them with a crowbar as his character watches a public lovefest for Rahim is some of the best physical acting you’ll see this year. The more people dig into Rahim’s story, the more holes they find. And the tangled web that sometimes almost seems to weave itself (in spite of the fact that every bad decision one could possibly make is indeed made by Rahim) almost breaks the spirit of Rahim’s young son, whose difficulties in speaking make him a kind of catnip for the constructors of a heartstring-pulling media narrative.
Farhadi shoots and cuts his story with his usual admirable dispatch, never erring in his camera placement or staging. That said, his script is hardly as seamless as it aspires to be. I frequently got the sense that Farhadi wrote the story’s varied poor outcomes for Rahim first, then retconned the traps that he almost habitually steps into, to reach the not-quite-resolution that’s a hallmark of Farhadi’s work. But as an arraignment of the systems that ultimately rule human interaction regardless of the superficial societal differences between Europe, the Americas, and the East, “A Hero” is a chilling demonstration of how, as the song says, money changes everything.