The opening of Asghar Farhadi's ('A Separation', 'The Salesman') latest film, 'A Hero', is emblematic of the journey that not only the protagonist takes, but likewise the audience. Rahim (Amir Jadidi) has been granted two days of leave from prison, and before he goes home to his family or sees his closest friends as one would expect, he instead travels to Naqsh-e Rostam, an archeological excavation in the mountains of Iran. It's a behemoth of a site, dwarfing Rahim as he slowly makes his way up the scaffold staircase to see his brother-in-law Hossein (Alireza Jahandideh). Farhadi chooses to use a steady and very long single shot as we witness Rahim ascend the mountain, but then almost immediately after reaching his destination, he begins his descent back to where he started.
It’s such a significant and confident step taken by Farhadi, who not only displays his craft behind the camera, but also captures his strong understanding of the characters he creates. Known for his intimate and personal films centred on human stories, Farhadi once again demonstrates that the power of his films rests in his ability to highlight social melodrama.
Rahim is in prison for a debt he owes to his ex-wife’s brother, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh). Rahim is able to convince the prison to give him some leave in order to pay off his debt, as unbeknownst to them, he has a plan. Rahim’s new love interest, Farkondeh (Sahar Goldust), has found a bag full of gold coins, which they intend to use to pay Bahram before marrying and living happily ever after. However, when the price of gold drops and he realises he won't be able to pay off the debt, Rahim decides the best thing to do is to try and return the gold to its rightful owner.
As luck would have it, with Rahim back in prison, the owner of the bag comes forward, the gold is returned, and Rahim is labeled the town hero. His new status puts him on an unrivalled pedestal, leading to his release and a promise of employment that will go towards his debt. But just as the ascent seems untouchable, rumours begin to circulate on the validity of his tale, and the doubt begins to overshadow his fortuitous position. Those closest to him start to get drawn into the chaos, and even as Rahim makes decisions with the best intentions, they will ultimately decide his fate.
Farhadi knows what it means to gaze upon a hero. When we as a society hoist a figure up, we do not allow them to make any mistakes, lest they become just like us. I hate to bring up the "Oscar slap", but there was a quote among the chaos which perfectly sums up the dread Rahim is experiencing: "When you are at your highest, the devil will come for you." We as an audience have seen the events unfold, so the film is less about whether or not he is telling the truth, but more about the reasons behind one's decisions, and the consequences of our actions.
There are aspects to 'A Hero' that are genuinely gut-wrenching, which is made all the more difficult to endure as Rahim is such a likeable character. There are moments in this film I wanted to watch with my hands covering my eyes. He is softly spoken, carries a warm smile, and seemingly always wants to do the right thing. But as Bahram protests, why should one celebrate someone doing the right thing? It is irrelevant if a good deed was done over one's personal interest; what matters is living by the rules we as a society have put in place.
Farhadi knows what it means to gaze upon a hero. When we as a society hoist a figure up, we do not allow them to make any mistakes, lest they become just like us.
This position really highlights so much of the careful detail Farhadi brings to his characters. They are human, they feel real, and nobody is necessarily wrong. One might watch this film and side with Rahim, while others might side with Bahram, and the beauty of it all is that Farhadi knows this. Whoever ultimately wins in the battle of heroism versus justice will still end up losing one way or another, and that in turn will make the viewer upset no matter the outcome. Rahim is built up to great heights for his selfless actions, but that just makes the fall even harder.
You can see everything eat away at Rahim slowly throughout the film, as it even begins to effect those around him, eventually leading him to portraying a disheveled version of himself - a stark contrast to the man interviewed on TV and labelled the hero. What’s more, Rahim tries everything to be the best father to his son Siavash (Saleh Karimaei), a young boy who who struggles to communicate. Of course, this makes everything that much harder, especially when he is believed to be used merely as a prop for sympathy.
Is Rahim unlucky, or is this caused by a string of bad decisions? Farhadi constantly challenges the audience by asking these types of questions, putting under the spotlight themes of morality, truth and society. He touches on cancel culture, family and politics, all while being fairly open ended, which allows the audience to take in everything that is happening and decide for themselves. It’s not that 'A Hero' is ambiguous in plot, but rather that it wants to challenge you, and succeeds in staying on your mind long after the final credits.
The essence of truth and the threads of doubt that unravel are not dictated by one's belief, but by society's rules and the perception your actions display. This film does a phenomenal job of presenting the facts, but twisting the narrative around the characters' best intentions creates a tense and engrossing drama.