A HERO (Ghahreman)

Producers: Asghar Farhadi and Alexandre Mallet-Guy   Director: Asghar Farhadi   Screenplay: Asghar Farhadi   Cast: Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabandeh, Sahar Goldust, Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy, Sarina Farhadi, Ehsan Goodarzi, Alireza Jahandideh, Maryam Shahdaei and Saleh Karimai   Distributor: Amazon Studios

Grade: B+

If, as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished, Asghar Farhadi’s latest suggests that neither does one done with less than perfectly altruistic motives.  In “A Hero,” a man who does the right thing, but only after contemplating the alternative, winds up worse than he started out.    It’s another of the writer-director’s sharp, fascinating tales of the vagaries of life in contemporary Iran.

The protagonist is Rahim (Amir Jadidi), an inmate in a Shiraz prison.  A shy, apparently naïve sign painter and calligrapher, he’s incarcerated for his failure to repay a debt to his former brother-in-law Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), a shop owner who refuses to allow him to be released until the amount is paid in full, an impossibility so long as he’s jailed.

The situation seems totally Dickensian, but there is one possible solution: Rahim is occasionally let out on leave, which allows him to visit with his fiancée Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), a speech therapist he’s gotten to know through her treatment of his son Siavash (Saleh Karimai), who’s afflicted with a bad stutter.  His latest two-day pass is especially welcome, since he hopes to take advantage of a windfall to secure his freedom: Farkhondeh has found a purse containing seventeen gold coins.  If he sells them, perhaps he can use the proceeds to convince Bahram to have him released so that he can get a job and pay off the remainder in installments.  His brother-in-law Hossein (Alireza Jahandideh), a restorer working on the ruins at Persepolis, is willing to act as an intermediary, and even to serve as a guarantor of the rest.

But Rahim’s hopes are dashed.  Not only does Bahram demand full repayment, but fluctuating gold prices mean that the coins are worth less than he’d expected.  He takes this as a sign that perhaps he’s doing the wrong thing, so he pivots and tries to return the purse to its owner.  Eventually a woman responds to the advertisements he puts up, and his sister Malileh (Maryam Shahdaei) turns the bag over to her.  When Rahim’s good deed becomes known to the prison authorities, they see it as a means for some positive publicity, and contact the news media.  The story goes viral on social media, and Rahim is feted as a hero who did a noble deed despite the cost to himself.

But he’s still in prison, and Bahram remains intransigent.  A charity takes up his cause and solicits donations to secure his release; they even arrange for him to be offered a job once he’s out.  Bahram reluctantly agrees to go along for Siavash’s sake, though his daughter Nazanin (Sarina Farhadi), whose dowry her father lost in the original transaction, remains hostile.

Things finally seem to be going well for Rahim, but his good luck unravels bit by bit.  People begin to notice inconsistencies in the story he’s been telling, some mere embellishments, others deriving from his decision to keep Farkhondeh’s role secret.  And when the bureaucrat in charge of placing him in a job demands that he produce the woman to whom the purse was given to prove his story, he can’t; and a masquerade he mounts instead turns into a fiasco that embarrasses both the prison wardens and Mrs. Radmehr (Fereshteh Sadr Orafaiy), the head of the charity that became his sponsor.  Social media turns against him, especially after somebody posts a video of him scuffling with Bahram.  When one of the jail officials proposes a scheme to rehabilitate his reputation at the cost of exploiting Siavash, Rahim is again faced with a terrible choice, as difficult as the original decision about what to do with the coins. 

Like his earlier Iranian-set films, “A Separation” and “The Salesman,” “A Hero” is technically austere—neither Mehdi Mousavi’s production design nor the cinematography by Ali Ghazi and Arash Ramezani makes any effort to beautify the drab atmosphere.  But the editing by Hayedeh Safiyari does an excellent job of keeping the escalating chain of events clear.

And the performances have a wonderful naturalness and complexity.  Jadidi makes Rahim a sympathetic figure, but also brings a hint of shiftiness to him, so that one is never certain of whether he’s as simple as he seems—or tries to seem.  Tanabandeh’s Bahram initially appears to be a one-note villain, but thanks to Farhadi’s script, he’s eventually shown to have some very good reasons for his anger, and in the end one has come to see his point of view too.  Both actors seize on the undertones in the writing to make both characters far more nuanced than they might have been.  Among the fine supporting cast, Goldust stands out as a woman who, as we see in sequences of her home life, has problems of her own, and special note should be taken of two younger actors—Farhadi, who quietly exudes a degree of malice that suggests she might be a major cause of Rahim’s downfall, and Karimai, who expresses Siavash’s pain without making the boy cloying. 

“A Hero” ends up as a parable of the interplay between fate and free choice that remains engrossing from first to last.