Few contemporary filmmakers have taken Renoir's words more to heart than Asghar Farhadi, who tells rigorous but compassionate stories in which people's motives are always more complicated than they appear. That's very much the case in Farhadi's new movie, A Hero, a gripping moral drama about what happens when a seemingly good deed goes unexpectedly awry.
It takes place in the Iranian city of Shiraz, where an unlucky man named Rahim, played by Amir Jadidi, is serving three years in debtors' prison. At the start of the movie, Rahim is released on two days' leave and returns home to spend time with his family, including his young son from a past marriage. Rahim also has a girlfriend who recently found a handbag in the street containing 17 gold coins, which they try to sell in hopes of paying off Rahim's creditor, the one who's keeping him behind bars.
But when they find that the coins aren't valuable enough to cover his debts, the wily Rahim comes up with a scheme to rehabilitate his image. He puts up fliers around town trying to track down the bag's owner, and sure enough, a woman soon comes forward and claims the coins as her own. Through some deft calculations on his part, Rahim ensures that his Good Samaritan act becomes widely known, and his story makes headlines on the news and on social media. A charity begins raising money on his behalf. Even the prison, where he returns once his leave has ended, is grateful for the positive attention.
Farhadi surveys this media circus with a skeptical eye, and you know that it's only a matter of time before the other shoe drops. Not everyone buys Rahim's story — certainly not his creditor and former brother-in-law, Bahram, who lost a lot of money on one of Rahim's failed business ventures and doesn't trust him at all.
A simpler movie might have villainized Bahram for not being more forgiving, but Farhadi treats him fairly and sympathetically. It's Bahram who asks the story's most pointed question: Why do we applaud people for doing the right thing, rather than simply expecting them to do it?
Before long, other people start questioning exaggerations and inconsistencies in Rahim's story. The woman who claimed the bag suddenly vanishes, and people wonder if she really existed. Even when facing adversity, Rahim tends to fall back on a charming, eager-to-please smile, but Jadidi's superb performance — the anchor of an all-around terrific ensemble cast — subtly reveals the character's mounting desperation as his plan falls spectacularly apart.
A Hero is Farhadi's strongest movie since A Separation, and like that 2011 triumph, it begins by delivering the narrative pleasures of a great detective story and winds up feeling like an X-ray of Iranian society.
Farhadi isn't as confrontational a filmmaker as some of his peers, like Jafar Panâhi and Mohammad Rasoulof, who have been persecuted by the Iranian government for their work. But the social critique is there. Farhadi reveals the injustices of the country's prison system, and he's attentive as always to gender inequality. More than once in this movie, men make rash decisions and women end up paying the price. Farhadi also lays bare the workings of a moralistic society where virtue, or the perception of virtue, is the true coin of the realm. And he shows us how institutions — even well-meaning ones, like the charity that helps Rahim — exploit people's inspirational stories.
There's nothing inspirational about A Hero, whose title begs to be read ironically. But if Farhadi is a pessimist about human nature, he isn't a cynic, and he doesn't discount the possibility of real, hard-won heroism. Some of the film's most moving scenes show Rahim trying to reconnect with his son and shield him from the consequences of shame and scandal — and doing it far away from the media spotlight. The truest acts of decency, Farhadi reminds us, are rarely performed in front of a camera — except, perhaps, a movie camera as perceptive as his.