Early in A Hero, one character cautions another about the space “between what people say and what people do.” That’s a simple, strong definition of the fraught fermata in which so many people find themselves in films from Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation). Farhadi has proven himself a master of mining monumental work from moral quandaries. His sixth outing transfers his tales of tremendous woe into an era of idealized image. Even if A Hero feels more familiar and plays out more predictably because of that well-traveled path, it’s no less poignant in balancing its loss of cultural specificity with its gain of universal applicability. (The film opens theatrically on Friday in Indianapolis at Landmark’s Keystone Art Cinema and the Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie, ahead of a Friday, Jan. 21 streaming premiere on Amazon Prime Video.)
Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is in prison after he’s unable to repay a debt to his creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), in the wake of a collapsed business venture. On a two-day furlough, Rahim and his brother-in-law, Hossein (Alirez Jahandideh), discuss how to tackle the debt when Rahim’s girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), finds an unattended handbag full of gold coins.
The exchange rate suggests Rahim has plenty to pardon himself from his debtor’s sentence. But the coin dealer to whom Rahim tries selling the gold offers far less than the potential price. And at that point, Rahim decides to advertise the missing handbag and return it to the person who left it behind. The reunion prompts local reporters to pounce on a good story … and initiate a detonating daisy-chain of interpersonal bombs around Rahim and those he loves.
The more simple finger-wag here is that no good deed goes unpunished. Farhadi dares to ask how good Rahim’s deed really was. Rahim knows his interviews will engender goodwill, but does his decision come from a true crisis of conscience about this contraband he found or an opportunity to manipulate the situation? Ramin knows the path to rehabilitation is recognition … but how much recognition is enough? And what happens when recognition tips over into that far more vulnerable zone of visibility? What could have been a dizzying collision of complications to Rahim’s story instead unfolds with a patient flow, and Farhadi is unafraid to challenge the inherent rooting interest for Rahim — especially as he trots out his stuttering son (Saleh Karimai) at increasingly public events that could make him an accomplice to cover-ups.
Essentially, Rahim is trying to gain just enough awareness to become anonymous — a feel-good anomaly bound for the archives in an age of mostly miserable news. Although Farhadi isn’t satirizing media per se, the outcomes here won’t feel particularly surprising to those who understand the tatters that the swift-spinning revolutions of a news cycle can leave behind. Thankfully, Farhadi isn’t out to determine a victor in the battle of perception versus reality, and he still weaves the tragic tapestry of A Hero with his usual urgency for the unheralded in society. If Farhadi has anything definitive to say about the space in which his subjects here find themselves, it’s summed up by a stunning opening sequence in which Rahim ascends a construction scaffold and we gradually lose sight of him amid the intricately intersecting infrastructure. Tarry too long in the labyrinth, and the Minotaur is the least of your problems.