Barack Obama Wants You to See This Harrowing Movie

Following his sojourn in Europe for 2018’s thriller Everybody Knows with Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, celebrated director Asghar Farhadi returns to his homeland with A Hero, yet another keen social-realist drama about the tangled messiness of contemporary Iranian life. The story of an imprisoned man who tries to hustle his way to freedom, in the process ensnaring just about everyone in his orbit in trouble, it’s a perceptive morality play about the complicated nature of nobility and deception, even if a few narrative hiccups prevent it from achieving the highs of his prior A Separation and The Past.

Iran’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the upcoming 94th Academy Awards, A Hero (Jan. 7 in theaters and Jan. 21 on Amazon, on the heels of a brief awards-qualifying run) concerns Rahim (Amir Jadidi), who’s been incarcerated for three years for failing to pay back a sizeable loan to his creditor Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh). At film’s start, Rahim exits prison on a two-day leave and reunites with girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), who’s recently found a lost bag at a bus stop that contains a collection of gold coins. Together, they attempt to sell those coins for cash that Rahim can then use to settle a portion of his debt to Bahram. When they’re offered far less than they’d originally hoped for, however, they concoct an alternative plan: to post flyers around the city about the lost bag in the hopes that the owner gets in touch, and that Rahim earns positive publicity that will convince Bahram to forgive his outstanding bill.

Initially, this good deed goes unpunished, with Rahim receiving praise from prison officials after his sister Mali (Maryam Shahdaei) delivers the bag to a woman who answers Rahim’s ad, and who had been hiding the gold from her husband in case she ever needed it in an emergency. A TV appearance touting Rahim’s selfless act aids his cause, convincing a charity council to raise funds on his behalf in order to satisfy Bahram’s demands. From the get-go, though, cracks in this scheme begin to form, such as Rahim claiming in public (on his jailers’ advice) that he found the bag, rather than Farkhondeh. Moreover, Bahram simply doesn’t trust Rahim, whose original irresponsibility cost the businessman not only the money he’d loaned him, but the dowry he’d saved for his daughter. Regardless of how popular sentiment develops, Bahram refuses to be labelled the bad guy for wanting what he’s owed. Moreover, even once he (temporarily) agrees to let Rahim off the hook, mounting social media rumors begin to spread—both about prison officials concocting this tale to distract from a separate crisis, and Rahim’s lack of honor.

In the latter case, those suspicions are somewhat valid. Rahim has both legitimately returned lost property and yet lied about his motivations, and his subsequent decision to trot out his stuttering son Siavash as a means of eliciting additional sympathy marks him as a less than laudable individual. Farhadi’s camera trails alongside Rahim as he scurries from one location to another trying to prop up his fiction, often subtly evoking his protagonist’s trapped circumstances through compositions that spy him through bars and wire fences, or in constricting doorways. At the same time, the director employs no music, thereby amplifying the immediacy of his unadorned portrait of Rahim’s plight, in which selfish intentions are achieved via virtuous actions and consequently beget knotty situations that require even more duplicity.

Rahim is neither a villain nor an innocent wronged-man, and A Hero situates itself in the topsy-turvy middle ground he’s crafted for himself. That space becomes more uncomfortable when, having seemingly cleared his name, Rahim strives to get a job that will help secure payments to Bahram, only to discover that his potential employer wants proof of Rahim’s feel-good account. Providing such evidence turns out to be impossible when the owner of the bag can’t be contacted, and Rahim’s response to this state of affairs further muddies an already chaotic dilemma. So too does a subsequent scuffle between Rahim and Bahram that once again calls the former’s reputation into question and compels him to double-down on mistakes from which he can’t easily extricate himself.

At the same time, the director employs no music, thereby amplifying the immediacy of his unadorned portrait of Rahim’s plight, in which selfish intentions are achieved via virtuous actions and consequently beget knotty situations that require even more duplicity.

Rahim’s ordeal is a case study in moral gray areas, where no one is damnable or faultless, and A Hero navigates its thematic landscape with understated incisiveness. Just about everyone who has anything to do with Rahim becomes a collateral-damage victim, from Farkhondeh and Siavash to the council members and prison officials who—for reasons both self-serving and altruistic—have helped forward Rahim’s version of events, and now want to minimize the blowback from his possible exposure as a fraud. Where the film stumbles, however, is in its somewhat creaky late scripting. Rahim’s decision to literally take matters into his own hands comes off as a bit contrived, as does the ensuing quasi-blackmail plot.

More pressing still is a general lack of suspense, which is due to both Farhadi’s tonally reserved storytelling (which never builds to a requisite crescendo) and the fact that Rahim’s shadiness is hard to shake, and thus neuters sympathy for his predicament, no matter that it’s as much a result of fate’s cruel hand as it is a reflection of his character. Nonetheless, that we feel as much for Rahim as we do is a testament to the performance of Jadidi, whose harried countenance and sad eyes exude genuine concern not only for his own well-being, but for Farkhondeh and, in particular, Siavash, whose exploitation he finally cannot tolerate. In that ultimate refusal to treat his child as merely a pawn in a game he’s desperate to win, and to accept accountability for his own fortunes, Rahim exhibits the decency he’s previously affected for so many and allows A Hero to locate a true measure of admirable heroism.