Director: Asghar Faradi (Iran, France). Year of Release: 2022
Shiraz, Southern Iran. A prisoner is being let out of jail on a 2-day release. Rahim was sent down for not repaying money that he’d borrowed from a loan shark, who happens to be the brother of Shiraz’s ex-wife. Shiraz hopes to be able to raise at least part of his debt so he doesn’t have to go back to prison. But where’s a poor calligrapher going to find that sort of money?
Well, here’s a lucky break. Rahim’s girlfriend Farkhondeh recently found a handbag containing 17 gold coins at a bus stop. A gold handler has valued them as being enough to pay off Rahim’s debts, but when they visit him together, suddenly either the price of gold has dropped or the handler has his eye on a cheap buck. Instead of selling the gold, Rahim puts up posters around time trying to return it to its original owner.
Critics seem divided on why Rahim does this. Is he basically a good man who has had a twinge of conscience, or does he anticipate more money from a reward than is being offered by the miserly gold handler? I think that the first option would work better dramatically – then we could view Rahim’s descent into depravity because of a couple of little mistakes and white lies. Unfortunately, I see nothing in the film which suggests that his decision is based on anything but opportunism.
We’ll come back to this later, but first let’s carry on with the story. The owner of the gold does not appear, but a tv show catches wind of what Rahim is doing and makes him a cause célèbre, aided by a cute appearance by his son, who has a severe stammer. A charity decides to raise money on Rahim’s behalf, and his new notoriety even gets him the chance of a job for the state which would enable him to pay off his remaining debt.
And this is where the white lies come into play. Rahim doesn’t want to admit to his clandestine relationship with Farkhondeh so he claims to have found the gold himself, despite evidence that emerges which shows that this happened while he was still in jail. The person in charge of getting Rahim a new job smells a rat, and relentlessly pursues the inconsistencies in the stories that he’s been told. The charity realises that if Rahim is a wrong un, their future work could be jeopardised.
Various meetings are held behind closed doors, where different protagonists sometimes discuss how they can all come out of the situation without looking too bad, sometimes threaten others that if they’re left holding the can, they will bring everyone down with them. The charity eventually makes a statement which says that the money they had promised to Rahim will now be given to a more deserving cause, but adds that this was all Rahim’s idea.
This has all the makings of a thoughtful drama about the extent to which moral compromises are sometimes necessary, or at least understandable. Most of the – generally adulatory – reviews view A Hero in this light. Rahim may not be perfect – none of the characters that we see is perfect – but he is confronted with dilemmas where there is no reaction which is completely clean. Maybe all that Rahim is guilty of is being born poor in a society where money has undue importance?
Well, maybe he is, but this is not the film I saw, particularly in its final half hour. Yes, Rahim is relatively powerless, but his grubby compromises are usually based on something else. Rahim regularly repeats that he does not want to lose face, that his pride means that he cannot back down. He sees his problems not as social ones, but as an existential threat to his arrogant sense of himself.
A case can be made (indeed it has been made) that Rahim’s pride is that of an honest working man who is forced to lie and cheat because, firstly, he is born poor in a society that privileges only the rich, and secondly, we’re all a little flawed, aren’t we? Reviews which try to push this line portray Rahim as a generally sympathetic character, in whom we must invest significant empathy.
Well, I’m sorry, but this just isn’t how I responded to the film. At no point did I find Rahim particularly likeable, or as someone about whom I should really care. At the start of the film, my attitude towards him was generally one of indifference. As the film progresses, and he twice shows the kind of toxic masculinity that’s normally reserved for Oscars ceremonies, he seems to be more part of the problem than anyone who is deserving of our sympathy.
A Hero has been loved by many, and good luck to them on that. I am pleased that they managed to find enjoyment out of a film which they found to be morally complex. For me, though, this was a superficial film which privileged the solipsism of it’s male hero, while letting its female characters bear the brunt of his problems in the background. And this is before we get to the risible plot twist about a video on social media. But maybe we’d better leave it there for now.