A Hero (2021)

Asghar Farhadi | 2hr 7min

Rahim’s troubles started three years ago when he was imprisoned for failing to pay a debt of 150,000,000 tomans to his brother-in-law, Bahram. Now, having served his time and been released on parole, the opportunity is there to start afresh – but where is the harm in an innocuous lie that it was he who discovered and returned a lost handbag containing gold, and not his partner, Farkondeh? After all, it helps cover up the fact that she was the one who discovered it two weeks prior, and that they initially planned to use it to pay off his debts. On top of that, letting him take the credit might even restore his reputation in the eyes of the public. It may usually be easy to apply convenient archetypes to moral tales such as these, but the ethical ambiguity that Asghar Farhadi permeates A Hero with undermines any attempts to do so, and from it sprouts a complex drama that sees a simple plan to regain honour veer off in unexpected directions.

An opening shot confining Rahim within a tight frame between bars, right before he is sent out into the world on parole.

With a handheld camera and a flair for searing realism, Farhadi’s directorial presence in this story is largely observational, rejecting artifice in favour of a grounded, down-to-earth examination of flawed people caught up in one poor decision. There is a spontaneity to his frequent rejection of clear, static shots of his scenes, instead letting characters drift out of the frame and behind obstructions as if we too are just another pair of eyes bearing witness to the shortcomings of our own humanity.

As such, his environments feel entirely organic, not just because of his location shooting in the Iranian city of Shiraz, but also the dedication to naturally filling out diegetic soundscapes and busy environments around Rahim. In one early conversation with his sister, the noises of his son’s video game offer an irritating layer of distraction beneath the dialogue, and later as he spies on Bahram at the market, a shopkeeper behind him underscores the anticipation with a hammered dulcimer, offering the only musical accompaniment of the film up until its final minutes.

Farhadi often resists clear shots of his characters, keeping a light spontaneity to his handheld camera in crowded spaces.
Building out an organic world around Rahim, as Farhadi scores a scene using diegetic music from within a market.

With such a detailed, intricate world being built, the rippling of Rahim’s mistake out into the wider community feels further grounded in the reality of Iranian culture. Even more than money, it is honour which becomes the most valuable commodity in A Hero, so much so that it might as well be a currency of its own. Within this social context, Rahim is a poor man indeed, looking to earn back the respect of his community by whatever means necessary. There is something about Amir Jadidi’s face in this role that is utterly sympathetic too, bearing a well-meaning honesty in his expression while he shoots off what he believes are insignificant lies, as even in those lies there is still a constant struggle between his moral compass and his desire to be seen as a good person.

Amir Jadidi’s face is a well of emotion, remaining honest to the scene even as he verbally lies.

For a while, Rahim’s plan appears to be successful. His first destination after being released on parole is the royal tombs of Persepolis, carved beautifully into rocky cliff faces where labourers are working on restorations. Farhadi holds his camera at a low angle here for what feels like an eternity, watching Rahim arduously climb the scaffolding steps to a site of great historical honour, and slyly foreshadowing his own journey to the heights of public esteem. Not long after he returns the gold, his story airs on national news, he wins a merit certificate, and he is even promised an early prison release. At a charity event, jump cuts move quickly through the crowd of attendees heaping piles of cash onto a giant plate for his benefit, and with the minor exception of Bahram, his creditor, everyone is more than happy to eat up this feel-good story of an indebted prisoner returning lost valuables.

The royal tombs of Persepolis make a wonderful set piece at the start, representing an ascent to cultural honour.

As it turns out, Bahram’s single seed of doubt is all it takes to spread rumours through the community of Rahim’s dishonesty. Attempts to patch things up and assure others of his integrity tear at the seams, and the honour which he cares so deeply about quickly slips between his fingers. Desperate measures are called for, and eventually his stammering son is pulled into the affair, recording a video that they hope might draw some sympathy. His parole officer who once admonished him for his lies is fine with this cheap ploy, but it still does not sit right with Rahim. Elsewhere, the charity which recognised his generosity is concerned that their affiliation will taint their reputation, and the prison is accused of orchestrating the whole thing. In teasing out these ambiguous moral lines that keep repercussions unclear until they transpire, Farhadi crafts a wonderfully thorny screenplay, refusing to draw hard distinctions between right and wrong, and choosing instead to provoke considerations of what any one of us might do given the very specific and unfortunate circumstances.

For a film relatively free of beautiful imagery, A Hero’s last shot stands far above the rest as a poignant bookend to Rahim’s rise and fall. Just as we first met him leaving prison on a path to success, we now leave him withdrawing back into that dingy, confined space, where those stripped of dignity are segregated from the rest of society. Piercing the dim foyer is a rectangle of bright sunlight leading to the outside world, framing a loving reunion between a newly released prisoner and his wife that now seems like a prospect that might only exist in Rahim’s distant future. The distinction between freedom and incarceration here is as distinct as the sharp contrast of light and darkness in Farhadi’s stunning final composition – or perhaps, in the case of Rahim, it is all the difference between honour and soul-crushing shame.

A gorgeous final shot lingering for three minutes – a return to prison and a release happening simultaneously through this bright doorway to the outside world.

A Hero is currently playing in theatres.

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