The unexpected visitor.
Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is embarking on his latest two-day leave from prison in the hopes that it will prove long enough to earn his freedom. He’s serving time for his inability to pay a debt of 150,000 toman and his creditor (Mohsen Tanabandeh‘s Bahram) has been the opposite of helpful as far as facilitating a road back. The reasons are complicated by the fact Bahram isn’t some banker or loan shark. He’s ex-family who did his sister-in-law a favor by compromising his own savings to protect her husband. To go through all of that only to then have Rahim divorce her and make himself nothing more to him but a debtor did no favors for their relationship. Bahram feels cheated and refuses to be fooled again.
Writer/director Asghar Farhadi looks to test his characters’ resolve by introducing a lost handbag containing seventeen gold coins. Ghahreman [A Hero] begins with Rahim and his secret girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust)—nobody in her family would ever let her marry a convict let alone a divorcée who already has a child—believing it has answered their prayers. She got a quote the previous week saying the coins were worth half of Rahim’s debt. He and his sister’s (Maryam Shahdaei‘s Mali) husband (Alireza Jahandideh‘s Hossein) think that’s a sufficient haul to get Bahram to rescind his claim and figure out a way to earn the other half back via employment. Bahram doesn’t agree, however. It’s all or nothing for him. Any good will or trust has long since vanished.
Rahim faces a dilemma. Cash in the coins so Hossein can continue brokering a deal while he remains in prison or ease his conscience by doing the moral thing of returning the gold to its rightful owner. Maybe said owner would even facilitate a reward for the good deed too. What nobody could ever have fathomed, however, was that the simple act of trying to give it back, despite him being someone in desperate need of money himself, would turn him into a feelgood hero for the community to rally behind. Suddenly the prison staff is calling the news to interview him. Local charities are organizing events to raise money in his name that might satisfy Bahram’s mistrust. And he’s given an indefinite leave to see it through.
Like with all Farhadi films, appearances are unfortunately deceiving. Even though there can be no question on our part as audience members that Rahim did what he said he did—give back the coins when a woman called with the bag’s contents’ correct description—the act itself cannot be absolved of its shadowy context. There are white lies (to protect Farkhondeh’s identity since being involved with him could ruin her reputation, Rahim says he found the bag), revelations (the lengths Bahram went to settle Rahim’s debt only to feel as though he was betrayed afterwards), cover-ups (good public relations for the prison is desirable right now after a recent suicide questioned their reputation), and victims (Rahim being labeled a hero reductively colors Bahram as a villain).
And let’s face it: conspiracy theorists will create unfounded yet believable assumptions. We know Rahim acted altruistically. He didn’t want anyone to know what he did. At least not consciously. Maybe he knew using the prison phone number on the flier he posted about the bag meant the warden would find out what’s happening, though. Rahim is objectively a criminal, so why not assume he’s also a criminal mastermind manipulating everyone en route to having a bunch of strangers pay off his debt? How should Bahram feel if that’s the case? Suddenly he’s the bad guy being insulted and defamed for going above and beyond for a man in need who subsequently let him down? Public opinion can break Rahim as easily as it made him.
Place Rahim’s stuttering son in the middle as a legitimately sympathetic witness and a potentially exploited pawn and undeniable truths are suddenly questioned as well as the lies, misconstrued perspectives, and duplicitous motivations. Farhadi is using A Hero to ask whether good deeds can ever remain good if they ultimately prove beneficial to the doer. The answer would probably have been a resounding “Yes” pre-internet, but now? The flattening of our world, rapid proliferation of social media, and communal desire for global notoriety (if not fame and fortune) has unfortunately changed the game enough to force us to give pause on such an absolute today. Facts have been replaced by editorials. Altruism has been co-opted as branding. To enter the public forum is to be scrutinized without decorum.
And that’s when the issue of money becomes secondary to honor. Farhadi’s script unfolds the central good deed into an intricately woven tapestry of manipulation, coercion, false testimony, thievery, and familial drama seeking to expose the world’s bloodthirsty yearning to prop up heroes for the explicit purpose of unmasking them as frauds. If one person questions Rahim’s story, many more will follow until the act itself is rendered inconsequential when compared with the motives. You can’t blame him for getting angry as a result considering just how fast the tables turn, but you can blame him for not comprehending the fact that he isn’t the first victim of that shift within this story. Farhadi making Bahram the most sympathetic character onscreen is nothing short of a magic trick.
Is it enough to overcome the circuitous nature of the plot? That’s in the eye of the beholder. For me, the pieces are worth a bit more than the whole simply because the lesson being taught isn’t necessarily one that needs to be constantly compounded by more examples of itself. I love what Farhadi is saying and how he says it, but I couldn’t stop myself from growing frustrated by what often feels like a repetitive series of tragic outcomes saying the exact same thing. It’s a scathing commentary on society’s penchant to piggyback onto another’s act of pure kindness to reap unearned benefits while the original actor is destroyed in the process. But one that perhaps revels in the orchestration of that destruction a little too much.
[1-3] © Amir Hossein Shojaei