Asghar Farhadi is inarguably one of the greatest filmmakers in the world. The Iranian director is part of a rare breed, having helmed two films that won the Oscar for International Feature, A Separation from 2011 and The Salesman from 2016, even though in the latter case Donald Trump’s intolerably cruel Muslim ban prevented him from coming to the ceremony to accept. It was poetically ironic, as Farhadi’s craft focuses heavily on highlighting differences in social class, and keeping the story tightly centered on the humanity of his characters, rather than perceptions of them from people not in their shoes.
That trend continues with his latest entry, A Hero, once again selected by Iran to compete for an Academy Award. Just like his previous masterpieces, this film takes a relatively simple conflict and makes it grand because of his overwhelming sense of empathy for all involved, including the antagonists. It all comes back to his motif of showing that people are complex beings, no matter what their movitations.
The film stars Amir Jadidi as Rahim, who we meet as he begins a two-day leave from prison. He has been locked up for three years for an unpaid debt to a former in-law named Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), who paid off loan sharks when Rahim went bankrupt, but grew impatient in getting his own money back.
Right away we find out that there’s more to learn about Iran than what we see in the news, because the idea of a weekend off from prison, especially one intended to help the inmate set affairs in order to hopefully secure his release, is simply unheard of in this country. The U.S. prison-industrial complex is predicated on punitive measures and an assumption of lasting guilt. You certainly can be rehabilitated, and there is hope that you will be, but once you’re in, you’re in for life in one form or another, as illustrated in countless news reports as well as tremendous films. It’s even a current topic of relevance that once you’re convicted of a felony, no company in this country is obligated to employ you, so if you were to have massive debts, you’re both expected to repay and on your own to find the means. On the flip side, it should be noted that the U.S. outlawed debtors prisons in 1833, over 30 years before we even banned slavery, so in this particular instance, Rahim would not even face this legal jeopardy unless there was proof he was willfully evading his debt.
It’s a brilliant way to take in the initial perspective of the events at hand, because Farhadi, again, excels in showing the nuances of the real world. He also gives his audience credit to understand a different government, culture, and legal atmosphere without hand-holding. Here’s another aspect of this whole affair that’ll blow your mind. Rahim’s debt to Bahram is 150,000 “tomans,” a superunit of Iranian currency that is undergoing reforms, but under the current system, is worth 10 Iranian rials, the standard currency. So the debt is 1.5 million rial. To save you the trouble of googling, on current exchange rates, Rahim’s debt amounts to $35 U.S. dollars. Not 35 thousand, not 35 hundred, but just $35 measly bucks. For the cost of the movie ticket itself plus popcorn and soda, any one of us could clear his accounts. That’s both genius and devastating, because it shows the vastly different experiences of the Muslim world compared to ours without ever having to pontificate about it, because Farhadi is so adept at making all of his characters empathetic that our natural curiosity and humanity would lead us to see how screwed Rahim really is. It’s the same phenomenon with the hit show, Squid Game. Most of us don’t follow currency exchanges, nor do we know how Korean won translates to American dollars, but the characters themselves are so richly drawn and performed that when we see Gi-hun and the others, we want to know how dire their straits are, and how life-changing the money from winning the games would be.
Back to the story. Rahim’s girlfriend, Farkondeh (Sahar Goldoost), found a purse at a bus stop shortly before his leave. It contained 17 gold coins, worth an estimated 75,000 tomans, half of Rahim’s debt. Meeting up with his brother-in-law, Hossein (Alireza Jahandideh), Rahim believes that selling the coins and giving the money to Bahram as a good faith down payment will be enough to rescind the criminal complaint and get him released permanently so that he can work off the rest of it. Unfortunately, when Rahim sets his plan in motion, he meets two instant road blocks. One, the exchange rates have devalued the coins significantly in a matter of days, so he’s not confident selling low. Two, Bahram’s daughter, Nazanin (Farhadi’s own daughter, Sarina; she was also in A Separation), who helps run his business, is extremely hostile towards Rahim, and along with Bahram, they reject his offer, stipulating an all-or-nothing repayment. Rahim asks Hossein to write checks to cover the rest, but Hossein has neither the funds nor the actual checks.
Resigned to returning to jail, Rahim decides the best course of action is to attempt to return the bag to whomever lost it before trying to sell the coins again. Back inside, a woman calls the jail and identifies the bag as hers. Rahim arranges the return, and the wardens within the prison decide to use him for a PR campaign, showing him as a model inmate, and working with charities to get him released – with a government job to pay off his debt – in exchange for favorable news coverage. However, in the greatest example of no good deed going unpunished, a slight slip of the tongue over the telephone leads to a series of incidents where outside forces work independently to take him down.
Rahim admits to the wardens that Farkondeh found the bag, not him, but he wants her to remain anonymous because they aren’t married yet (she works as a speech therapist at a center where Rahim’s oldest son from a previous marriage gets help with a stammer), and he doesn’t want to bring her into an unnecessary spotlight. Over the phone, he jokes that she’s really good at fooling people, which is overheard by one of Rahim’s cellmates, who tips off the city council, saying that Rahim is a liar, and causing them to rescind the job offer unless Rahim can prove his story. Naturally, the woman who owned the bag is nowhere to be found. Later, in a moment of frustration, Rahim also confronts Bahram, who has been adamant that he stay in jail, about just cutting him a break, but it turns into a scuffle, which Nazanin records on her phone and uses to blackmail the charities to denounce Rahim lest she go public and ruin their reputation as well. Even the wardens, who initially seem like they want to help Rahim, are perfectly happy with him rotting in jail if he doesn’t absolve them of any wrongdoing and make his son available for what are basically propaganda videos to generate sympathy.
It’s a heartbreaking portrayal all around, because there isn’t a concrete answer about what should happen. Rahim is certainly a sympathetic character, and it’s made clear that he knows he’s done wrong. That’s why he’s trying every avenue he can think of to make things right. No matter his transgressions, he is earnest in his desire to fix the situation, even if he’s less than tactful or strategic in his execution. At the same time, an objective person can easily see Bahram’s point of view. He’s been fooled by Rahim before, so he’s naturally distrustful in the present, and according to the laws of the land, Rahim has literally and figuratively not repaid his debt, so why should he get special dispensation and fawning media attention at the expense of him as the aggrieved party?
This is the unmatched skill of Asghar Farhadi as a filmmaker. He’s so good at establishing and developing character that it’s impossible to broad stroke any of his players. Everyone involved not only has a motivation for their actions, but one that tracks throughout with their respective stations in both life and the story as a whole, never once betraying it for the sake of melodrama. There are larger questions to ask about Iran’s justice system, just as there are for any country’s, but Farhadi never presents it as an indictment. Rather, it’s an exploration of the Murphy’s Law elements that can easily come into play without being too far fetched. Rahim is a lodestar because all of it is happening to him at once, with him framing it as a test of faith at times, but any one of these situations, or several of them, could reasonably befall a convict hoping to reform, ultimately holding them back. But again, Farhadi, being the thoughtful artist that he is, isn’t calling out the system as unfair, merely presenting a fictitious depiction of exploitable elements that everyone should be aware of. That’s why he’s one of the best.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you enjoying this showcase of foreign entries? Have you ever been on the wrong side of the law and thought it impossible to get back on the right side? Let me know!
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