No good deed goes unpunished

As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. Especially half-constructed ones.

Directed by Asghar Farhadi, A Hero is the latest from the Iranian director lauded for his Oscar-winning films A Separation and The Salesman. A moving portrait of social realism hinged around the idea of a “noble deed” and its brittle power to determine one’s reputation, the film premiered in Cannes where it took home the Grand Prix. Produced by Amazon Studios, it’s Iran’s selection for Best International Feature at this year’s Oscars, and it just arrived on Prime Video.

Set in the city of Shiraz, Iran, the film centres around Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a calligrapher who’s serving time in prison for not repaying his creditor. Receiving two-days leave to sort his affairs and figure out a way to stay free, he finds a glimmer of hope in a found bag of coins, formulating a plan with his girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust). Instead of using the coins to settle his debts, he decides to return them to their owner. After which, he’s publicly praised as a hero, rewarded for his honesty in favour of personal gain. But Rahim’s constructed strategy comes with unexpected costs. As the tale unravels, more reputations than his are put on the line.

Sahar Goldust as Farkhondeh in "A Hero", holding the purse with the coins in it.

Sahar Goldust as Farkhondeh, holding the bag of coins that changes everything.
Credit: Amir Hossein Shojaei

This idea of reputation lies at the heart of A Hero, the importance of one’s appearance as a “noble” person and its cultural currency — and how society builds heroes up just to tear them down. Rahim’s intentions are by no means entirely pure, leaning into the sense of comfort (and possible freedom) that comes with being dubbed heroic, especially after shouldering the social stigma of spending time in prison. However, the film sets this examination of morality amid the unrelenting battlefront of debt and the chain of impact it has on people’s lives. While not as extreme as the likes of Squid Game, A Hero looks at the lengths to which people will go to pay their debts, backed into a corner with little choice. “Nothing is fair in this world,” a taxi driver tells Rahim, and he’s right.

As the events of the film unfold, reputations stand to be raised or crushed in an instant, whether Rahim’s, his family, the charitable organization that publicly praises him, or the prison authorities who want to use him to smooth over the institution’s bad press. Whether through TV or social media, characters know the power of releasing an unflattering or celebratory video to change someone’s reputation instantly. Soon enough, as prison official Salehi (Farrokh Nourbakht) correctly observes, “All our reputation is at stake.”

Farhadi brings his signature style of social realism to A Hero, keeping cinematographer Ali Ghazi fixed on characters for long, lingering shots through various spaces. These spaces are filled with the sounds of the everyday grind: tinkering, crunching, driving, beeping, chatting, whirring. But what’s truly heroic about this film is the performances, each character intensely developed with their strengths and flaws, their motives and morals. The relationships between characters are given copious amounts of emotional space. The core bond between Rahim and his sister, Malileh (Maryam Shahdaei), and brother-in-law, Hossein (Alireza Jahandideh), and their children indicates years of love and patience. This makes Rahim dragging them into the chaos more painful for him and the audience. Malileh, Rahim’s deeply loving but no-nonsense sister, wants an end to both her brother’s struggles and social pressure imposed upon the family. Hossein, Rahim’s unwavering ally, drops everything to help negotiate a means for him to pay his debts, putting his own reputation, family, and finances on the line. 

Siavash (Saleh Karimaei) and Rahim (Amir Jadidi).

Siavash (Saleh Karimaei) and Rahim (Amir Jadidi).
Credit: Amir Hossein Shojaei

As Rahim, Jadidi is simply exceptional, politely attempting to maintain control of his fragile plan with quiet determination against the odds, hoping to keep that slim window of freedom wedged open. Jadidi brings an awkward, gentle, shuffling physicality to the character, accepting his newfound fame with overt humbleness. Rahim uncomfortably wields his merit like the gold he returned, as it grants him freedom, conversations, and access. But not for long. Repaying the debt becomes less important to Rahim than his honour, his reputation, and so what begins as a simple plan to appear the hero slowly spirals into turmoil. His strained relationship with his son, Siavash (Saleh Karimaei), becomes the fulcrum of his motivations and the real measure of heroism.

However, Farhadi hasn’t created a one-sided tale, instead expanding this notion with the character of Barahm (Mohsen Tanabandeh), Rahim’s creditor and former family friend. In one respect, he singlehandedly stands in the way of Rahim’s freedom. Yet his character is crucial to moving A Hero beyond one man’s quest to find public redemption, beyond ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ and whose ‘side’ we’re meant to be on. The director gives Bahram and his daughter Nazanin (the director’s daughter, Sarina Farhadi, who won the Silver Bear for her role in A Separation) more space to show a more nuanced depiction of the impact on Barahm and his family. “I’ve never dishonored anybody. Will I be given a certificate?” Barahm asks. “What noble deed did he do? What good did he do? I did good three years ago because I considered him family…Now he’s a hero and me, who did so much for him, the bastard creditor?”

Barahm (Mohsen Tanabandeh), Siavash (Saleh Karimaei), and Rahim (Amir Jadidi) sitting beside each other.

Barahm (Mohsen Tanabandeh), Siavash (Saleh Karimaei), and Rahim (Amir Jadidi)
Credit: Amir Hossein Shojaei

The situation rapidly becomes greater than the individual men involved, affecting their families and the broader community. Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy brings another level of moral dilemma to the film as the head of the charity that assists Rahim. Meanwhile, Goldust is wonderful as Farkhondeh, whose unconditional love for Rahim and his “pure heart” sees her ready to find creative means to free him, however it may backfire.

Asghar Farhadi’s film explores the idea of “noble” acts from multiple perspectives, examining the speed at which one’s reputation can be elevated or thrown into disarray with one choice, and how these actions can have a ripple effect on those around us. With exceptional performances, lingering cinematography, and a stark realist soundscape, A Hero is worth holding out for.

A Hero is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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