The opening credits of A Hero play over a shot of Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a prisoner granted two-day leave from his sentence, climbing the scaffolding erected on the outside of the Tomb of Xerxes, part of Naqsh-e Rostam; the length of the take encourages a visual irony: his ascension in this moment likely heralds the beginning of his decline. (Restoring the tomb, as the workers on the Necropolis are doing, is an act of reputation maintenance: which is in part the subject of the film.) Asghar Farhadi’s latest piles on the problems, and in the course of A Hero, set in Hafez’s hometown of Shiraz, invokes quandaries about moral trustworthiness, duty versus expediency, media narratives, illicit engagements, disability, and the Iranian prison system. It’s a heady mixture, but the diligence of Farhadi’s approach, which is defined by its exposure of every narrative angle and motivation, the piling up of moral complication and nuance, and then the calculated springing of the trap, would seem to stand him in good stead.
But A Hero disappoints desperately. The scenario itself is partly at fault: Rahim’s secret fiancée, Farhkondeh (Sahar Goldust), discovers a bag of 17 gold coins at a bus stop, which the pair plan to sell and use the proceeds to pay off Rahim’s debtor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), his ex-wife’s brother. Foiled by a lower-than-hoped-for valuation, Rahim instead advertises the coins for return to their owner; they are claimed, and news of his good deed travels. His family, his neighbours, the media, the prison officials and a charity that assists prisoners all sing his praises; but Bahram remains unmoved. And he’s not alone.
Something about Jadidi’s recessive performance substantiates their suspicions: he has a calm demeanour, a slow smile, and a habit of placing his palm on his heart while speaking, a gesture of deference and sincerity. But his speech gives him away. He often backtracks on his stories, admitting to crucial facts only retroactively—his frequent locution “the truth is…” merely plays up his potential dishonesty. (There is a beautiful detail in here: Rahim at one obstacle claims that a gold merchant’s pen didn’t work, which is true, but it sounds so much like a lie it doesn’t pass muster with Rahim’s interlocutor.)
Farhadi mines the ambiguity about Rahim’s moral character in effective ways in the film’s opening movement, but afterwards it gives way to its worst impulses. A jobsworth bureaucrat, who is meant to provide him employment for his celebrated act, delves into the contradictions of his testimony with drastic consequences: it’s the kind of plot device that shows up the flimsiness of the scenario itself. Likewise, the film treats the disability of Rahim’s son, Siavash (Saleh Karimaei), exactly like one of the characters, who seeks to exploit the boy’s stammering speech on social media to win back Rahim’s sceptics. Scenes between Rahim and Siavash are sketched too briefly, make emotive claims the film can’t seem to situate within its wider emotional landscape, and are a rare instance of dramatic cynicism in the Farhadi’s cinema.
Speaking of declines: the director’s work has been on a dip since About Elly (2009) and A Separation (2011), devastating films in which the density of narrative construction is matched scene for scene by marvellous schemes of staging and by minutely detailed performances. From The Past (2013) through The Salesman (2016) and Everybody Knows (2018), the set-ups have become much less assured, the drama less fine-grained, the reversals of fortune and toppling narrative designs less convincing. A Hero continues on this downward trend, but contains one grace note his other post-A Separation films do not.
The final shot of A Hero is a smartly composed, very subtle condemnation of Iran’s prison system, one that earns the film a comparison to the more outright, immutable critique of Mohammad Rasoulof’s There is No Evil (2020). The frame is divided in two zones while a prisoner, an old man, is released; a small window to the left shows prison officials working in an office, while a door to the right opens up a view of the prison car park—a woman is waiting in the distance. The man walks through the door, joins the woman, and embraces her. Farhadi’s multi-planed staging-in-depth here is exquisite, but its composition is more than just careful: it’s a beautifully conceptualised vision of Rahim’s future. It would be possible to read the carceral politics of A Hero as being slightly lenient towards the institution of the prison, since the officials who populate the narrative are initially portrayed with sympathy; but this is balanced by the way they manipulate Rahim’s fame for their own purposes, and become punitive as his stature wilts. What Farhadi’s concluding shot expresses beyond all else is that incarceration is a theft of life.