The definition of a criminal has many variations. It typically refers to someone who has broken a law, which may or may not be in effect in a neighboring country, state, or city. A person can be held accountable and imprisoned based on local doctrines, though assigning guilt or impure intentions is a murkier matter. There are countless motivations an individual might have for knowingly or unknowingly subverting an existing rule or decree, and the legal system often does not or cannot take that into account. A Hero examines the intersection of criminality and conscience, and how the two can be highly interwoven and inseparable from one another.
Rahim (Amir Jadidi) receives leave from an Iranian prison and immediately meets the woman he secretly plans to marry, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), who has found a handbag with seventeen gold coins in it. Their value may be enough to help Rahim pay the creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), with the power to forgive his debt and get him released. But Rahim finds himself unable to go through with it and instead puts up flyers so that he can return the coins to their rightful owner. That apparent act of selflessness earns Rahim much praise throughout the community, but some, including Bahram, doubt its authenticity and whether Rahim should indeed be regarded as a hero.
Director Asghar Farhadi has, throughout his career, delivered involving, intriguing tales of people in seemingly simple situations whose circumstances reveal far more depth and intricacy. The two-time Oscar winner returns with another film in the vein of A Separation and The Salesman that was unsurprisingly selected earlier this week as the official Oscar submission for Iran for Best International Feature. The setup of the prison system in which one man can effect the release of another is something that looks nothing like the American structure, and the manner in which Iranians interact and greet each other will also seem foreign for those unfamiliar with the culture. There is a universality to this story, but its setting is nonetheless crucial and relevant.
From his first appearance, Rahim is meant to be sympathetic, congenial and smiling, eager to please and a model prisoner. He has a close relationship with his brother-in-law (Alireza Jahandideh), who, with his sister (Maryam Shahdaie), looks after his son (Saleh Karimai), who has a severe stutter. Rahim seems genuine in his offer to repay Bahram half of what he owes and then to find work after that can be used for the rest. That he reconsiders using money that is not rightfully his to get out of trouble only further suggests his good nature, and a forgiving public lauds him for that trait, commending his commitment to righteousness even when it could have bought him his freedom.
But there is much more to Rahim, and this film, than mere appearances. Bahram repeatedly rejects his characterization as an unfeeling, money-grubbing villain, citing how he previously trusted Rahim, who failed to repay him and cost him the dowry of his own daughter, Nazanin (Sarina Farhadi). To him, Rahim is able to put on a friendly front and convince even the most discerning of people that he can be relied upon, but history has shown him that it is not the case. Much like a convicted criminal who has been released on a legal technicality, Rahim’s misdeeds and lack of sincere remorse have not been washed away by more recent events. Rahim’s reputation is more important to him than anything else – even his freedom – but he believes that positive contributions in the present can undo that which he has not righted from his past.
The themes presented in this film are reminiscent of other foreign films that have used cultural conflicts and notions to ponder the severity and potential redemption of criminal offenders. Audiences who have been intrigued by the moral ideas of Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult, from Lebanon, and Ruben Ostlund’s The Square, from Sweden, will find equally compelling concepts here, and the continued discussions and deliberate pacing invoke the approach used by Corneliu Porumboiu in Police, Adjective, from Romania. Being named as Iran’s Oscar representative, Farhadi’s fifth film to earn that national distinction, ensures that a wider audience of international cinephiles will see it, though those without prior exposure to Iranian cinema should also consider investing in this thought-provoking and captivating look at guilt, innocence, and the less distinguishable area that lies between them.
A Hero is screening at Film Fest 919 and will be released in theaters January 7th, 2022 and on Amazon Prime Video January 21st, 2022.