Everyone is the hero in their own story, and in our interactions with others we tend to audition for heroic supporting roles in one another’s stories. The correlation between the things we do and the story we tell ourselves about what we’ve done and why isn’t always as close as we imagine — to say nothing of the overlapping, not necessarily entirely compatible stories we tell to others. Often the correspondence is close enough, or the stakes low enough, that the discrepancies never come to anyone’s attention, even our own.
One of the things that makes Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) such a riveting storyteller is how persuasively he imagines sympathetic characters who are more or less trying to do the right thing finding the consequences of that “more or less,” that small bit of wiggle room, compounding and spiraling out of control in unforeseen directions. There, but for the grace of God … but where is the grace of God for Farhadi’s characters? Ah, watch for it.
The title character in Farhadi’s masterful A Hero is Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a calligrapher and sign painter living in Shiraz in southwestern Iran. His story to date is one of failure: a failed marriage, a failed business, and a defaulted debt that has landed him in debtor’s prison. There are credible reasons why the latter failures, at least, are not his fault: He lost his business and was unable to repay money borrowed from his ex-wife’s brother-in-law Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh) because his crooked business partner skipped town with the money. Rahim’s warm smile and self-deprecating manner invite us to take his side, as does the delight with which his secret girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), greets him during a two-day leave from prison. For that matter, his creditor Bahram’s scowling belligerence, which seems unnecessarily hostile, contributes to Rahim’s sympathetic appeal. Who wouldn’t root for some kind of redemption here?
In an extraordinary opening sequence, after leaving prison Rahim heads straight for his sister’s husband Hossein (Ali Reza Jahandideh), who is engaged in restoration work at the tomb of Xerxes (yes, that Xerxes, from the Old Testament book of Esther), part of the immense Naqsh-e Rostam necropolis cut into the face of the mountain of Hossein Kuh: a monument to the story that Xerxes and other ancient Persian kings told about their life and times. Rahim wants Hossein’s support trying to broker a deal with Bahram to begin to settle his debt: a proposition that precisely no one involved, including Rahim’s sister, regards with aplomb. Where has Rahim suddenly found a pile of money? Actually, it was his sweetheart Farkhondeh who found, on the street, a bag of gold coins that she hopes will set Rahim on the path to freedom and respectability — to becoming someone that she can bring home to meet her brother. But that hope falls through, and the couple belatedly decide to do what they can to return the lost bag and its valuable contents, if possible, to the unknown owner.
This is clearly, in itself, not just the right thing to do, but the best thing: the kind of altruistic act that elicits profound gratitude from the beneficiary and might not be noted by anyone else. As it happens, Rahim’s act comes to the attention of the authorities of his prison, who reasonably see an inspiring human-interest story: a man imprisoned for debt choosing to return a significant sum of found money to its owner. I’d probably click that link and maybe retweet that article; wouldn’t you?
What makes Rahim’s story particularly endearing, each of the many times he tells it, is his transparent frankness about getting the coins appraised and seriously considering selling them to help pay down his debt. One detail does fall by the wayside: Although privately he tells prison officials that the money was found, not by him, but by his secret girlfriend (his wife, he says at first, quickly clarifying that he intends to marry her), he can’t very well bring her name into it in public. But the officials see no harm in eliding this complication and telling the press that he found the money himself. In principle, it could have happened that way, and the story is true in essence, right?
Rahim’s inspiring story seems at first a rising tide that lifts all boats. It’s good television and good publicity for the prison, which, as it happens, is facing negative public attention over a prisoner suicide. With his modest manner and winning grin, Rahim makes an attractive poster boy for a charity that raises money to help prisoners. Rahim’s own prospects soon appear significantly better than if he had simply cashed in on the gold coins. Only surly Bahram refuses to join in the love-fest for a man he considers a morally bankrupt deadbeat — and if he seems unreasonable at first, grumbling that a man shouldn’t be valorized merely for not stealing and doing what any decent person ought to do, trust Farhadi to complicate the picture by utterly persuasive degrees as he carefully parcels out information.
As is typical for his films, Farhadi’s characters generally act in reasonable, understandable ways, given their perspective, interests, and knowledge at the time. This includes a council watchdog who is frustratingly but never unreasonably more conscientious than he might be, and keeps pulling at what might be loose threads in Rahim’s story, whether they actually are or not. Rahim finds himself being questioned and challenged even where he’s told the truth, and it’s only a matter of time before the more vulnerable parts of his story start unraveling — especially when it isn’t just the fibs that lead to more and more deceit. You can see how our embattled protagonist begins to feel as if no good deed goes unpunished, but you can also see how Farhadi cross-examines the very idea of a rising tide that lifts all boats, all the boat owners having vested interests.
With the tide ebbing as quickly as it rose, Rahim’s is not the only boat affected; his story comes into conflict with other stories, and triaging must be done. It’s here that one of the nagging issues in Rahim’s story comes into focus: All the key plot points, the important decisions, have been suggested by other people (a bank teller; prison authorities; a taxi driver; and of course Farkhondeh). Rahim’s aggrieved sense that nothing is his fault partly reflects his habit of evading responsibility, his penchant for externalizing his losses and implicating others in his risk-taking.
In the end is a final gambit to perpetuate Rahim’s version of events, to raise his boat just a little. It comes at a cost to someone other than Rahim, and, although as always one can see the rationale behind the gambit, in the end it’s clear that the cost is more than Rahim is willing to allow. As in A Separation and other films, Farhadi seeks moral clarity in the murky world of adult action by looking through the eyes of a child; in this case perhaps Rahim himself, meeting a child’s gaze, finds some clarity as well. For the first time since we’ve known him, Rahim makes a decision that isn’t suggested by someone else and doesn’t benefit him, even in the court of public opinion. It may not make him a hero in anyone’s eyes, but at least he’s a man taking responsibility and accepting consequences. It’s a poignant moment of truth reminiscent of the moral turning points at the heart of the films of the Dardenne brothers, a moment of empathy and self-knowledge: a moment of grace.
• A Hero is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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