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Asghar Farhadi delivers a tale about ethics and integrity

A Hero lacks the verve of A Separation and the emotional gravitas of The Salesman but as a generic social drama, it has its heart in the right place.

This review was first published when A Hero premiered at Cannes Film Festival 2021. It is being republished in view of the film’s Indian premiere in theatres on 8 April, 2022.

Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi’s latest Cannes competition entry A Hero is a social drama about moral dilemmas and the alacritous flexibility of principles. As far as the subject matter is concerned, Farhadi has not veered off his usual themes, holding up a mirror, and offering his viewers glimpses into the psyche of contemporary Iranian society. Weaving together brilliant performances and a fairly engaging script, Farhadi delivers a tale about ethics and integrity, and how they clash with each other when personal stakes are greater.

Shot during the pandemic in Shiraz and readied in time to debut at Cannes, the distribution rights of A Hero have already been scooped up by Amazon, and it is expected to drop on Prime video soon. Farhadi, a Cannes favourite, attended the premiere alongside his cast on the Croisette, where he received a standing ovation lasting several minutes even before the screening began. The film will compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or (his third if he manages this feat.)

The soft-spoken and affable Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is out on parole from his prison sentence. A separated man with a son with speech impediment who lives with his sister’s family, he has defaulted on his debts that sent him to prison. But if he can manage to pay off his debts, he can avoid spending the rest of the years of his punishment in jail. He may have found a way out: his girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust) recently stumbled upon a lost handbag with some gold coins that she wants to sell to raise money for Rahim’s debt repayment.

But when the couple consult with a pawn broker, they realise the money may simply not be enough for a prison bailout. Rahim has a change of mind, and wants to return the coins. When the prison officials get wind of Rahim’s deed after the bag is returned to its owner, they milk it to their benefit to distract public scrutiny of a prison death. Rahim is now forced to pretend he found the handbag, and the news gets picked up by local media that even prompts a charity to organise a fundraiser for his bailout.

But things quickly go south when the disbelieving creditor raises doubts about Rahim’s story, over and above questioning the prudence of honoring Rahim for a deed that is only ethical and commonplace. Now, Rahim must convince his skeptical potential employer that his tale is indeed true, over and above getting hold of the funds raised by the charity that he is at risk of losing. In another director’s hands, things may have been different but this is Farhadi so the protracted drama unspools further with episodes in which Rahim takes one bad step after another, pushing him further away from his liberation.

Watching Jadidi as Rahim is sometimes enervating because he gives his all to play the well-meaning man with a drooped demeanour whose unresolved moral quandaries lead him down a tunnel with little hope for a light in sight.

By portraying events related to mobile phone videos threatening to topple people’s lives, Farhadi seems to want to make a commentary on social media’s role in shaping modern lives, but that topic remains woefully underexplored. In the penultimate scenes, when Rahim stands his ground to prevent his jail supervisor from releasing a video of his stuttering son’s plea to public on his innocence, Farhadi finds fecund ground for melodrama. As Rahim’s misery drags on, the plot somewhat gets bleary losing its potency, even as it is tempered by his ethical quandary.

The ochre visuals of Shiraz’s mountains and endearing vignettes of middle-class Iranian households, replete with lemon trees in tiled backyards and food constantly being cooked and served, serve as a strong backdrop to build a credible narrative.

Running at a little more than two hours, the master storyteller that he is, Farhadi has a firm finger on the pulse of the film, tightening up the narrative as and when the pace slackens by introducing one too many plot twists. On the whole, A Hero lacks the verve of A Separation and the emotional gravitas of The Salesman but as a generic social drama, it has its heart in the right place.