Asghar Farhadi returns to Competition with the story of an unlinkely man caught in a social media storm
Dir/scr: Asghar Farhadi. France/Iran. 2021. 127 mins.
In an age when social media has made fifteen minutes of fame look like a generous estimate, what does it mean to be a true hero? If you know you did the right thing, is it okay to tweak the truth and play-act a little in order to convince others that you’re genuine? And what should you do if defending your own honour inevitably means dishonouring someone else? Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s new drama embeds these and other moral questions in a truly compelling drama anchored by the remarkable central performance of Amir Jadidi as a man who is almost undone by one selfless gesture that goes viral. And as we all know, viruses have a nasty tendency to mutate.
Farhadi’s work is always richer for being set in his home country of Iran
A Hero also proves, once again, that while Farhadi the director and writer is never less than a talented crafter of sophisticated melodramas that tussle with both ethical and emotional issues, his work is always richer for being set in his home country, Iran. Despite its starry cast, his last film and previous Cannes competition entry, the Spain-set Everybody Knows (2018), had little of the dramatic subtlety or moral intelligence of About Elly, A Separation or The Salesman. You could take almost any of Farhadi’s plots and remake them almost anywhere in the world – this is particularly true of A Hero, which one could imagine being recast somewhere in the American Midwest. But films are about more than plots, and A Hero gains much of its resonance from being exposed to the stress-test of urban Shiraz and the coercive forces that sculpt modern Iranian society. This, alongside the film’s tight pace, should propel Farhadi’s latest into arthouse theatres the world over.
There’s a scent of failure hanging around Jadidi’s character Rahim, a whiff of desperation that he tries to cover up by smiling his way through adversity. His flickering smile is the film’s emotional barometer: on the rare occasions it’s snuffed out, the effect it devastating. We first see Rahim when he emerges from prison on two-day leave, walking past a wall gaily painted with a forest scene teeming with birds. It’s only much later that it is revealed that the artist was Rahim himself, a calligrapher and signwriter by trade who has been given a prison sentence after being denounced by Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), the guarantor for a loan shark debt Rahim which was unable to repay.
Rahim’s love interest, Farkhondeh (Sahir Goldoust) works at the speech therapy centre attended by Rahim’s stuttering son Siavash; though they are not yet married, they plan to wed as soon as he gets out of jail. Farkhondeh might even be able to arrange this herself, as the lucky recipient of some manna from heaven: a handbag, found at a bus stop, containing 17 gold coins which, once sold, might raise enough to pay off Rahim’s debt in part – enough, perhaps, to convince Bahram to withdraw his complaint.
But behind his haunted smile, Rahim is a brooder, and he broods his way into a change of conscience, putting up flyers about the lost handbag – whose owner eventually comes forward. This act of ‘heroism’ will put him on prime-time news and make him a social media star when the prison authorities realise that they can parlay his selfless act not only to enforce moral norms but to raise their own credit rating – recently lowered by a prison suicide. It’s here that A Hero begins, slowly and inexorably, to reel Rahim in until he’s dangling on a hook, more desperate and in deeper jeopardy than when we first saw him against the backdrop of those painted birds spreading their colourful wings. The question of just who’s holding the rod and doing the reeling is the crux of the film.
Is it Bahram, who stubbornly refuses to accept even partial payment of the debt (but turns out to have his own good reasons)? Is it the prison governor and his sidekick, who throw Rahim into the media mill for their own advancement? Is it the TV people who tell him not to mention the loan shark because usury doesn’t play well on Iranian TV? Is it the little white lie Rahim tells to cover up his clandestine relationship with Farkhondeh – that it was he, not she, who found the handbag at the bus stop? Is it the charity that decides to help Rahim raise the money with more than a sideways glance at their own reflected glory – before turning on him when his ‘brand’ starts to go toxic? Through all of the supposedly innocent moral compromises that these characters make and that unmake Rahim, it’s the real innocents, the children, who suffer the most – especially Rahim’s son Siavash, whose debilitating stutter is exploited, at one point, as a sympathy-winning asset for a YouTube video.
A Hero has no musical score; its soundscape is dominated by traffic noise, fragments of music, the beeps and pings of kids’ video games. Visually too we are in a high-pressure environment, one where intimacy can only take place in a car, where a prison is just one more box that people are forced to live in. But crowded spaces can be joyful and reassuring too – like the colourful, supportive home Rahim to in Shiraz which belongs to his sister Malileh and brother-in-law Hossein. Nobody is quite perfect here, nobody fully the villain; and as our suspicions wax and wane about Rahim himself, we, the audience, become the emotional repositories of these constantly shifting grey areas.
Production companies: Memento Production (Fr), Asghar Farhadi Production (Iran)
International sales: Memento International, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Asghar Farhadi
Production design: Mehdi Mousavi
Editing: Haydeh Safiyari
Cinematography: Ali Ghazi
Main cast: Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabandeh, Fershteh Sadrorafaii, Sahar Goldoust, Maryam Shadaie, Ali Reza Jahandideh, Sarina Farhadi, Ehsan Goodarzi