Perhaps owing to his work in theater, writer-director Asghar Farhadi seems able to find drama in the most surprising places. After his Spanish-set Everybody Knows with stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem and a string of short movies, he makes a welcome return to his native Iran with A Hero (Ghahreman), a very fine film about honesty, honor and the price of freedom.
The Iranian-French coprod is a small film in format, pointing it to art house fans who can pick over the director’s typical themes amid subtle symbolism and refined technical work. Its reception at Cannes, where it’s competing, should indicate how far a local film like this can go internationally.
An astute Iranian drama that plunges deep into society’s ills.
Prisons are one of the key locations in contemporary Iranian cinema, both as overcrowded places of punishment and, naturally, of metaphoric confinement within a tough society. In A Hero, the prison is an open-door cage well-serviced by buses, where the working-class hero pops in and out, as his fortunes ebb and flow. It is through this door that the unemployed Rahim (Amir Jadidi) chooses his own fate. A far cry from the director’s middle-class drama A Separation, the first Iranian film to win the Academy Award for best foreign language film, A Hero returns Farhadi to the basics of national storytelling in an increasingly complex tale of half-truths and lies that eat away at all those who traffic in them, which is to say, everybody.
The setting is Shiraz and the first scene, in which we meet the honest but naïve protagonist, takes place on a sheer cliff face containing the royal tombs of Persepolis, where the kings of the Achaemenid Empire are at rest. Rahim, who has just been released from prison on a two-day leave, climbs up an excruciatingly high scaffolding strung with ropes; it seems in every way a place of death. In this symbolic landscape, he meets his friendly brother-in-law (Alireza Jahandideh) and together they discuss ways for him to repay the old debt that sent him to jail three years ago.
His creditor is another brother-in-law, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), a shopkeeper who embodies malice and pettiness. He has it in for young Rahim, who was formerly married to his sister, and does everything in his power to destroy his reputation and keep him in prison. On Rahim’s side is his own sister, his son and the new love in his life, Farkhondeh (played as a strong modern woman by Sahar Goldust), whom he hopes to marry as soon as he can pay off his debt and get back to work.
Farhadi’s screenplay thrusts the viewer into the middle of a murky story about a lost handbag. A woman waits to board a bus with a handbag containing 17 gold coins; but before reaching the next stop, she realizes the bag is gone. What we see is Farkhondeh light-heartedly giving the gold coins to Rahim. Together they try to sell them to a dealer, but the price is too low. It will not be enough to pay even half of the 150,000 tomans he owes Bahram for a business that went bust. With all doors closed to him and his conscience pricking, Rahim advertises for the owner of the bag and returns it to a poor woman who weeps with joy to get it back.
Next act. Word of his good deed gets around and the image-conscious prison authorities send over a TV crew to interview him. Jadidi is at his best showing Rahim’s naïve pleasure in being singled out as a hero, after a lifetime of being treated like a worm. Best of all, he becomes a hero in the eyes of his son, a serious boy with a speech disorder who seems old beyond his years.
But the publication of Rahim’s story in the newspaper and its airing on regional TV also excites jealousy, in no one more than the dark-hearted Bahram, who doubles down on being obnoxious and unfair and refuses to renegotiate Rahim’s debt.
At this point Farhadi’s web is woven and all he has to do is to pull the strings to tighten it around the hapless hero. People begin to cast doubt on his story and motivations. Cracks appear in the account, and Rahim is forced to update his version continually. When a charitable organization collects money to get him out of prison and find him a job, things really go wrong.
Interestingly for an Iranian film, the power of social media plays a huge role in the hero’s unraveling, and several plot points turn on whether or not certain facts will be posted and made public. Perhaps the film’s most moving scene shows a prison warden feeding lines of not-completely-true testimony to Rahim’s little boy, who bravely struggles to get through a few sentences being recorded on camera to improve his father’s image.
The film’s simple, lower-class setting is met with equally direct camerawork, lighting and editing. This feels like the farthest Farhadi has come from his stage work and the sometimes unconvincing dramatic elements that occasionally creep into his films (the sexual assault that comes out of the blue in The Salesman, for example). Here, instead, everything seems so probable that events have an archetypal quality — the bureaucrat who won’t accept Rahim’s job application even though it’s all been arranged, the charity queen who gets on her high horse over nothing, everybody’s stubborn insistence on being respected, when they show no respect for others. And the never-ending, instinctual chain of lies that enslaves the characters and gives the film its larger dimension.