Arts movie review

The Myth of Heroism: Asghar Farhadi questions the admirable In ‘A Hero’

Farhadi’s latest drama examines society’s fixation on simple stories of individual altruism

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Amir Jadidi as Rahim Soltani in 'A Hero.'
Amirhossein Shojaei (courtesy of Amazon Studios)

A Hero
Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Screenplay by Asghar Farhadi
Starring Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabandeh, Sahar Goldust
Rated PG-13, Now Playing

Asghar Farhadi, widely billed as the pre-eminent modern Iranian filmmaker, has released his ninth feature film — a layered moral drama that explores questions of responsibility and atonement. Farhadi’s stories are known for portraying tension due to class, gender, and religious differences, often in a family setting. In A Hero, the focus is on the former, with the film making a statement about the choices that poverty and powerlessness force on us. Deception is a common theme in Farhadi’s films and appears frequently in his newest film as well. Prison and the role of restitution, which appear in Fahadi’s second and fifth films (A Beautiful City and A Separation), are also central in A Hero. Despite this continuity in themes, Farhadi’s narrative style has evolved since his earlier films: he is spare with explicit details about the histories and motivations of his characters, leaving the audience to untangle a web of complex relationships. A Hero also breaks free of previous films’ dependence on a central mystery that is solved over the course of the film, with the narrative instead driven by the protagonist’s internal development.

In a 2019 New York Times interview, Farhadi explained, “To get to know my characters, I need a crisis … In crises, we show our true character.” The central crisis of A Hero is established early: the protagonist, Rahim Soltani (Amir Jadidi) defaulted on debt from a loan shark three years earlier, causing his guarantor, a man named Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), to suffer significant losses. After several failed attempts to collect payment, Bahram launched a legal claim against Rahim, leading to his imprisonment. With a dejected gait and a half-smile seemingly frozen on his face for most of the film, Jadidi effectively captures Rahim as both nervous and naïve as to the gravity of his actions.

Despite Rahim’s bleak backstory, the film starts off on a hopeful note: in the opening scene, he is allowed to leave prison on temporary release. We learn that he has raised funds to pay half of his debt, which may free him permanently.

This seemingly straightforward solution soon fails in the face of the first of several twists: Rahim initially claimed that the money for his payment would come from a friend and that the money is “not a loan.” After being pressed by his sister Malileh (Maryam Shahdaie), Rahim reveals that the money he “raised” was in fact inside a lost handbag found by his fiancée Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust) and decides to search for the bag’s owner. At this point, it feels as if a major moral obstacle has been overcome. In reality, Rahim’s troubles are just beginning.

The prison officials learn of the bag incident, and they invite the media to cover Rahim’s good deed in an apparent PR move. Rahim needs money to secure his freedom, not public accolades; however, he soon realizes that the public attention may yield a solution to his problems.

Thanks to an event organized by a local charity, Rahim is offered a government job, and community members contribute funds towards his debt. Though the event raises less than 25% of his total debt, it appears that Rahim has been saved, with one caveat: in order to fully secure the government job, he must produce the bag’s owner and have her corroborate his story.

A key tension rests on questions of motivation: what motivated Rahim to return the bag? If it was anything other than self-driven altruism, is he really the “hero” that the title suggests? Class also subtly plays a role in this tension; Rahim’s choices were made in the broader context of desperation, likely creating a complex set of motives. Farhadi poses an uncomfortable question: in a world where not all have the luxury of pure motives, is it the act or the intention that counts?

Furthermore, buried within the publicity saga is a commentary about who society reveres. After being pressured to accept the donated funds as a deposit, a frustrated Bahram asks whether Rahim should be celebrated for doing what any decent person should do. When Rahim later confronts Bahram, he asks whether the man is “jealous” that Rahim is now respected by society. Bahram responds simply, “Poor people whose hero is you.”

Unable to locate the bag’s owner, Rahim arranges for his fiancée to impersonate her. When his deception is revealed, all involved parties are forced to doubt Rahim’s entire story, causing him to lose both the job and the donated funds.

By this point, we feel helpless regarding Rahim’s debt. However, the central conflict has already been eclipsed by a deeper storyline: Rahim’s role as an agent of his own fate. He repeatedly fails to own his decisions, blaming the prison officials and the TV channel for encouraging small lies and for the public attention that he did not seek. He also shirks responsibility for his circumstances, telling Bahram’s daughter that he was “plagued by bad luck” and claiming that it’s “not his fault” if the charity loses future support because of his actions. When pressed about impersonating the bag owner, Rahim responds: “I had no choice … I couldn’t find the owner.” Of course, he did have a choice, and this scene simply highlights his lack of ownership.

Towards the end of the film, Rahim is faced with additional moral tests, and we see a new intentionality in him that was absent in the first part of the film. In a final meeting at the charity, Rahim finally asserts himself: “I don’t care about this money. I care about my honor.” Despite wanting to save his reputation, he wisely declines opportunities to stretch the truth in order to do so. Even after being smeared publicly in a damning video by Bahram’s daughter, he refuses to use his son’s speech impediment to garner sympathy for himself. By resisting, Rahim regains some esteem in the eyes of viewers, if not the broader community.

While Farhadi is known for depicting dubious moral choices without seeming to cast judgment, it is hard to take a neutral view of Rahim’s actions. Some of his decisions, far from being intentional, seem to result from his recklessness or thoughtlessness. Nevertheless, Farhadi succeeds in creating a complex, conflicted character whose development over time is evident. Other characters fail to develop to the same degree: Farkhondeh, who opposed returning the bag, remains willing to make moral compromises at the end of the film.

The film concludes with one of Farhadi’s more resolved endings; although we don’t know whether Rahim’s debt will be resolved or when his sentence will end, we have some measure of confidence that he will make better choices in the future.

A Hero is a recognizable product of the well-oiled Farhadi machine; though the cast features none of the actors seen regularly in Farhadi’s other films, he reunites with long-time editor Haydeh Safiyari to deliver a rich and well-paced narrative.