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The title of “A Hero,” Asghar Farhadi’s characteristically complex, humane and absorbing new movie, at first cries out to be read ironically.
Farhadi, the Iranian writer and director of art-house favorites like “A Separation” and “The Salesman,” has little use for saintly protagonists, and his ninth feature — garlanded at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and recently shortlisted for the Oscar for international feature — is no exception. It unfolds over several eventful days in the life of Rahim Soltani (Amir Jadidi), a failed entrepreneur who’s serving three years in debtors’ prison, and who is no one’s idea of a hero. Until, that is, he performs a good deed that goes viral, nabbing his 15 minutes of fame from a jaded society eager for even faint glimmers of hope for humanity.
A rigorous pessimist who nonetheless avoids the trap of easy cynicism, Farhadi understands and, up to a point, satisfies the public’s need for everyday uplift. “Human-interest stories” may be a reductive term for his particular mode of character-rich, milieu-specific filmmaking, but it is not an entirely inaccurate one. Certainly, Rahim is nothing if not interesting. When he steps into the sunshine for two days’ prison leave, a good-natured smile plays over his handsome face, a smile that persists even when he chases after a departing bus. You sense that Rahim has missed more than a few opportunities. You also sense that his charming smile, which he slips into with almost maddening reflexiveness, earned him a lot of them to begin with.
Another such opportunity has already presented itself as the story opens. Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldoust), the woman Rahim has been seeing, recently discovered a lost purse containing 17 gold coins — a godsend for someone in his dire straits. But when it becomes clear that the value of the coins won’t cover his many debts, Rahim hits on another scheme.
While out on leave in his home city of Shiraz, he puts up fliers trying to locate the purse’s owner — and sure enough, a woman comes forward, claiming the bag and the gold as hers. But the true prize becomes clear when Rahim’s act of kindness — a sacrificial gesture from a man who’s already lost so much — makes national headlines, and he and his family become the toast of their community virtually overnight. A charity raises enormous sums on his behalf. Even the friendly prison staff wind up basking in the glow of their celebrity inmate.
And just as swiftly — but also intricately and methodically — it all comes crashing to the ground. As he drifts in and out of prison, Rahim sees his hard-won reserves of goodwill suddenly depleted, undone by community gossip and online backlash. (“A Hero” is essentially Farhadi’s version of a “milkshake duck” narrative, a story of how social-media fame can giveth and taketh away, though the internet remains a background presence rather than a front-and-center dramatic device.)
Before long, a time-old debate reasserts itself: Does altruism really exist? No good deed may go unpunished, but how good was Rahim’s deed to begin with, having been engineered for maximum attention? At the same time, who could blame him for exploiting the moralistic codes that govern so much of his daily life, and for trying to acquire a dose of respect in a society where virtue is the true coin of the realm?
One of Farhadi’s shrewder insights here is that institutions, perhaps even more than individuals, have a real stake in turning inspirational stories to their financial and reputational advantage. He has always been good at revealing interlocking chains of complicity — at using, say, a couple’s looming divorce in “A Separation” to confront tough, intractable issues of class, money, religion and gender in present-day Tehran. While it’s more studied than that earlier film and doesn’t achieve the same gut impact, “A Hero” undertakes a similar process of social illumination.
Rahim’s fortunes rise and fall with the pace of a thriller and the scope of a tragedy, but in a Farhadi film, every protagonist is caught up in a larger, sadder story. That story comes into focus early and often, swept into view by the expansive widescreen frames of Ali Ghazi and Arash Ramezani’s cinematography and the agile rhythms of Hayedeh Safiyari’s editing.
Seemingly minor characters are accorded significant dramatic weight, and many of them are played by actors whose names you may not know, but whose faces you will have a hard time forgetting. Fereshteh Sadrorafaii plays the stern but not unreasonable director of the charity that rides the tide of Rahim’s good deed — and comes under fire when his story begins to fall apart. Ehsan Goodarzi plays a council officer tasked with investigating Rahim’s story, and his calm, dogged skepticism is so penetrating — and so emblematic of a state that distrusts everyone by default — that you may find yourself rooting for Rahim to get away with it.
The ability to pull off that kind of moral reversal, to draw you into an almost Hitchcockian complicity with characters at their lowest ebb, is one of Farhadi’s signature strengths as a storyteller. But he also earns your sympathy for the crucial figure of Bahram (an excellent Mohsen Tanabandeh), Rahim’s unyielding, unforgiving creditor and his own personal Javert. The bad blood between them has an ugly, complicated history, involving family entanglements and failed business ventures, that the movie takes its time untangling. But it’s precisely that history that allows Bahram to see through Rahim’s deception with a stubborn clarity that eludes everyone else, and it’s he who articulates the movie’s most pointed ideas.
“Where in the world are people celebrated for not doing wrong?” Bahram asks in one heated confrontation. It’s one of many questions swirling around the taut but elastic drama of “A Hero,” some version of which you could imagine playing out in any number of different countries and eras. But any successful retelling would have to find its own equivalents of Farhadi’s penetrating cultural insights.
Among other things, he reveals the everyday injustices of a prison system that turns citizens into each other’s captors and captives. He’s attuned to the ways in which emotional and logistical burdens fall disproportionately on women, including Farkhondeh and Rahim’s sister (Maryam Shahdaie), both loving and loyal to him to a fault. And not for the first time, Farhadi proves acutely sensitive to the ways in which children — in this case, Siavash (Saleh Karimai), Rahim’s young son from a prior marriage — end up paying a cruel price for their parents’ mistakes.
Siavash speaks with a stutter, making him an object of easy pity when Rahim’s image-rehab campaign kicks into gear. And even as Farhadi critiques Rahim for exploiting his son’s impediment, he takes pains not to fall into the same trap. But he also understands how children can, at certain moments, show us our better selves, can spur us to do the right thing — and, crucially, for the right reasons. It’s telling that Rahim’s most quietly heroic gesture takes place in secret, far from the eyes of onlookers or the lens of a news camera. Perhaps the title isn’t so ironic after all.
In Persian, with English subtitles
Rating: PG-13, for some thematic elements and language
When: Opens Friday
Where: Angelika Carmel Mountain, Landmark Hillcrest; available Jan. 21 on Amazon Prime Video
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes