Iranian director, Asghar Farhadi, has forged an international reputation with a cinema of complex moral dilemmas. It’s a defining characteristic of Iranian movies in general, partly as a result of oppressive censorship that restricts the range of subjects and treatments available to filmmakers. The best directors have learned how to work within state-imposed limitations, making low-budget, realist features that imbue local stories with a universal resonance.
Once we become accustomed to the settings and costumes, Farhadi’s films draw us into a completely familiar world. We recognise each personality type, from the most open-hearted to the mean-spirited, but it would be wrong to see these people as merely good or bad. They have reasons for every attitude they hold. As we begin to understand these reasons the story develops an extraordinary tension. Although there is relatively little action in Farhadi’s movies, the drama is gripping.
In A Hero, which won the Grande Prix at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, we meet Rahim Soldani (Amir Jadidi), who is on two days’ release from a low security prison. Rahim has been gaoled because of an unpaid debt to his former brother-in-law, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh). We learn that Rahim started a business that went bankrupt when he was cheated by a former partner. He compounded the problem by borrowing money from a loan shark, allowing his liabilities to spiral out of control.
Rahim’s defining feature is a charming, if slightly dopey smile that only wavers when things go wrong. On his weekend out of prison Rahim stays with his sister and brother-in-law in their home town of Shiraz. The family also looks after his son, Siavash, who suffers from a speech impediment.
We hear much about Rahim’s first wife, but she never appears on screen. Instead, he has formed an attachment with Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), a speech therapist who has treated his son. On this trip, Farkhondeh has a gift for Rahim: a handbag she found in the street that contains 17 gold coins. She hopes the money can be used to help pay off his debt, allowing them to marry.
Eventually, Rahim decides it’s wrong to take advantage of someone else’s misfortune. He reports finding the bag, and puts up notices giving the phone number of the prison. When a woman rings to claim her handbag the prison authorities see a great PR opportunity. They want to portray Rahim as a moral exemplar to society and a living testament to their enlightened correctional methods. Soon they’ve arranged an interview with a TV station, and Rahim is known everywhere as a hero.
This sudden public acclaim doesn’t impress Rahim’s creditor, Bahram, who still wants his money, complaining that he raided his daughter’s dowry to find this sum. As the pressure grows on Bahram to be more forgiving, a counter-movement develops. Rahim’s good deed is questioned on social media, with many believing he faked the whole episode. This becomes a problem when Rahim has to prove his story in order to get a job. Although he has been honest about finding and handing over the bag, his story is full of white lies which provide reasons for doubting his integrity.
I won’t reveal any more of the story which escalates from this point. Rahim’s travails may give credence to the old adage “no good deed goes unpunished”, but his troubles grow out of a web of false steps and misunderstandings. By claiming he found the bag himself, he hoped to keep Farkhondeh out of the picture. He explained this to the prison warders who advised him to forget all about it and just tell the TV interviewers what they wanted to hear.
Bahram, who seems so bitter and uncompromising, resents the idea of Rahim being respected and feted as a hero. To him and his daughter, their former relative is a scoundrel who misled them and owes them a lot of money. While Bahram never comes across as sympathetic, his deeply-rooted resentment has a basis in fact.
The prison warders, who treat Rahim with the greatest friendliness, have a private agenda. Another prisoner had recently committed suicide, and they want to portray themselves as compassionate and humane. Rahim, for his part, is only too pleased to go along with them, feeling genuinely grateful for their support.
Finally, there is the spiteful chorus of voices on social media, eager to spread rumours and conspiracy theories. We see this on a daily basis in the west, but it seems Iran suffers from exactly the same blight. Even when there are restrictions on so-called free speech, the speech that is permitted casts human nature in the worst possible light.
Rahim is a genuinely decent person whose good nature contains a large helping of naiveté. Having decided to do the right thing he automatically assumes everyone will respond in a positive manner. He begins as a pitiable figure, but suddenly becomes widely respected. What he doesn’t forsee is that public respect also gives rise to envy and malice. For Rahim, to have had respect and lost it is more distressing than anything he has endured in the past. He feels he is letting down his two unflinching admirers, his son and his girlfriend.
Farhadi paints a devastating picture of a society in which a good deed is so rare it counts as headline news. But when a private action is transformed into a public performance it becomes an act of theatre open to a range of interpretations, with everybody forming an image of the lead actor that suits their own purposes. The irony is that Rahim would have been much better off had he ignored the voice of his conscience and cashed in the coins. In a world of instant fame and notoreity, constructed by the media, there’s no percentage in being a hero.
Written & directed by Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Amir Jadidi, Sahar Goldust, Maryam Shahdaei, Alireza Jahandideh, Mohsen Tanabandeh, Ali Ranjbari, Sarina Farhadi, Saleh Karimaei, Farrokh Nourbakht
Iran/France, rated PG, 127 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 4 June, 2022