In the wake of Iran’s phony election of 2009 that re-installed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, the country cracked down on its filmmakers, so Abbas Kiarostami died in France, Mohammad Rasoulof spent a year in prison, Jafar Panahi is still forbidden to travel outside Iran, and Asghar Farhadi — who won the only two Oscars in his country’s history — went to Spain to make Everybody Knows. Since then, Farhadi has felt safe enough to return to Iran to make his follow-up movie, A Hero, which opens at Grand Berry Theater and looks to be a leading contender for foreign film awards this year. I don’t think it’s the best Iranian movie of 2021 (that would be Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil, which I cited in my top 10 list), but it does give you more of the same moral sagas growing out of everyday life that has distinguished Farhadi on the world stage.
The main character is Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a calligrapher in the city of Shiraz who is incarcerated for failing to repay a loan from a former friend named Bahram (Mohsen Tananbandeh). During a two-day furlough from prison, Rahim’s girlfriend (Sahar Goldust) finds a woman’s purse containing gold coins. He decides to return the money to its rightful owner (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy), a timid woman whose husband has been stealing from her. The local press, encouraged by the prison officials, proclaims Rahim as a hero. That turns out to be the worst thing that could happen to him, because this is a Farhadi film.
Also because this is a Farhadi film, the movie contains about a dozen plot twists that take you by surprise without ever feeling arbitrary. The toxic element in this story is social media, as Facebook and YouTube users take to vilifying Bahram for refusing to forgive Rahim’s debt, and Bahram curses out the reporters and the prison administrators for casting him as the villain of the story. The prison officials, for their part, are seeking good publicity for themselves and point to Rahim’s good deed as evidence that their facility is rehabilitating its inmates. They rope in a private charity that offers to raise money to give Rahim a job. Rahim himself only returns the gold upon reckoning that it’s not enough to repay Bahram, and while his girlfriend does let him publicly take credit for finding the purse, he can’t resist ginning up his story for the press. That tendency comes back to bite him when questions arise about his story’s veracity and he turns from hero to liar in the public’s eyes. His family is reduced to seeking out the owner of the gold coins to vouch for him, knowing full well that it might put her in danger. If this were funnier, it might be a Preston Sturges comedy.
As it is, I’m not sure this is on the same level as Farhadi’s A Separation and The Salesman, although those films may have benefited by introducing us to this great filmmaker. Social media is a much different place in Iran, where you can be thrown in prison for posting the wrong thing (and oh boy, do you not want to be in an Iranian prison). Yet despite that, this movie shows us Iranian users subject to the same gullibility and mob mentality as ours. It’s all too easy to imagine a situation like Rahim’s here in America, as he and Bahram are caught in a spiral created by their own personal flaws and the spotlight that catches them. This gives A Hero its staying power and cements Farhadi’s status as a filmmaker whose work is not to be missed.
Starring Amir Jadidi and Mohsen Tananbandeh. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. Rated PG-13.