If you don’t know Asghar Farhadi’s filmography, you’re missing out on the work of the most gifted moral playwright of the 21st century. In masterpieces like About Elly and A separationand even in relatively “minor” – i.e. only large rather than transcendent – works like Seller, Farhadi probed the psychology behind choices that seem indefensible to those of us in the audience, but perfectly reasonable for the characters he wrote. They are portraits of how cultural and institutional norms can get in the way of doing the right thing – or even stopping to think about what “the right thing” might be.
A hero considers this notion in a much more public context, which seems deeply relevant in a time when people are tossing around phrases like “performative” goodness. It’s a complex story of broken systems and broken individuals, and the potential cost of doing “the right thing” that no one will ever know about.
Farhadi’s protagonist is Rahim Soltani (Amir Jadidi), a man serving time in an Iranian prison for his failure to repay a debt. He is, however, granted a short leave for the possibility of arranging repayment with his creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), after Rahim’s divorced girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), finds a purse full of coins. Golden. When the value of these coins turns out to be insufficient to repay the entire debt, Rahim has second thoughts about keeping the coins and attempts to track down the owner of the lost bag, making him a media darling for his selfless act.
In another filmmaker’s version of this story, it would turn into an all-out farce, built on Rahim’s initially reluctant status as a role model after the story spins out of his control. For Farhadi, however, it’s an opportunity to explore the messy, blurry lines between real goodness and perceived goodness. The prison service initially tries to piggyback on Rahim’s story, hoping he can give a little public relations boost; a charity raises funds for him based on their understanding of his behavior, then backtracks as soon as inconsistencies in his story threaten to tarnish their image. Every decision has a ripple effect, and everyone seems far less interested in what Rahim actually did than how it might reflect on them.
At the center of it all is Jadidi’s performance as Rahim, and Farhadi is such an accomplished writer that he often doesn’t get enough credit for the way he directs performances. Rahim’s behavior initially resembles that of a rucksack slung over his back, riddled with debt from a bankrupt business, but not a “bad guy” despite his debt being criminalized. Yet he becomes increasingly restless throughout the twists and turns of his story, losing control of himself in the face of Bahram’s bitter refusal to cut the slack off Rahim – a bitterness that makes sense given what we let’s learn about the impact on Bahram’s own family of being Rahim’s signer. to lend. This desperate and pathetic quality transformed into violence feels like a microcosm of incarceration creating criminals, and Jadidi’s mesmerizing portrayal captures this transformation with tragic beauty.
And just as he doesn’t get enough credit as an actor director, Farhadi doesn’t get enough recognition as a visual stylist, simply because his career has its roots in acting. There’s a great juxtaposition in the first two sequences, one which shows Rahim trudging up scaffolding stairs at a construction site, versus Farkhondeh descending the stairs in a series of quick, clean cuts, highlighting the relative difficulty of their respective situations. Then there’s the final shot – a long take much like the one that ends A separation– which places a similar emphasis on what Rahim’s situation takes away from him, creating a sense of grief.
This latest move is based on another moral choice Rahim faces, one involving his young son Siavash, who has a speech impediment. Although the character could easily have been used for bathos, he becomes the pivot on whether or not Rahim will do the thing that could present him in the most sympathetic light in the world, even though he knows it causes unseen pain. . A quote commonly attributed to basketball coach John Wooden says “character is what you are when no one is watching”; like so many of Asghar Farhadi’s works, A hero let’s be the one watching.