Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi
A hero, written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, begins as a simple tale that eventually turns into a drama full of ambiguities and complexities. It focuses on the lower echelons of Iranian society.
Farhadi is well known for A separation (2011) and Seller (2016), each of which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. A hero received the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival last year. A socially realistic approach to everyday life characterizes the filmmaker’s best work, evidently influenced, along with that of other Iranian filmmakers, by post-war Italian neorealism (Visconti, De Sica, Rossellini, De Santis and others). Farhadi said: “At one point, the conditions in my country were the same as the conditions in Italy after the war, and we had similar experiences.
The candor and directness of Iranian filmmakers like Farhadi and their openness to the drama of everyday life help explain why the country’s cinema has figured prominently in recent decades. Iranian filmmakers have also stood out, despite the vicissitudes of individual careers, because there is such a dearth of film artists in the world taking these issues seriously.
As the WSWS commented a decade ago about A separation“The central problems of A separation are deeply human and utterly believable. The film is a “realistic, unflattering portrait of Iran, a society plagued by intense contradictions. … Individual degrees of guilt or innocence fade away, as the ultimate responsibility for the tragedy clearly lies with deep social and economic tensions.
In A hero, for the first time, Farhadi plumbs the depths of society. Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is a working-class artist and divorced father who has been in prison for debt for three years. A voiceover informs: “Time passes slowly here. The sun rises more slowly on these walls than elsewhere and takes its time to set. The walls are high and daunting here, but still, they give some shade where you can hang out for a few moments, dream after, after going out.
The film’s setting is Shiraz, a historic city in southwestern Iran and the country’s fifth largest in terms of population.
Rahim leaves the prison for a two-day leave and his first stop is an amazing cliff containing the Royal Tombs of Persepolis, where the bodies of the kings of the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550-330 BC) rest. Since the tomb of King Xerxes is built on the side of a mountain, there are extensive scaffoldings with stairs to allow access for workers carrying out restoration work inside and outside the necropolis. After making the interminable climb, Rahim arrives breathless to meet his friendly brother-in-law (Alireza Jahandideh), who is repairing cracks in the reliefs, and to discuss ways for the former to repay his debt.
Rahim explains: “I was a sign painter and a calligrapher. Then the printed banners came and I had to close my business. … I got a loan from the bank to start a turkey farm, but it didn’t work. They caught a disease, died and I went bankrupt. I could not repay the loan. My guarantor had to pay for me, he sued me and I ended up in jail.
His creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), is financially troubled himself and reluctant to forgive monies owed, despite being related to Rahim by marriage. Rahim was briefly released from prison to pay off his debt. In an apparent stroke of luck, his girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldoost), found a purse full of gold coins. But a gold broker informs the couple that the price of the precious metal has fallen and that 17 coins will not be enough to solve the problem.
Rahim chooses to return the coins to their rightful owner. Needing good publicity following the suicide of a prisoner (who committed suicide after six years of incarceration), the prison authorities opportunistically use Rahim’s act of civic altruism to present him to the audience as some sort of outright hero. According to prison officials, Rahim “has proven by this act that one can put good deeds before self-interest”. Innocent Rahim is swept away by publicity after a life of poverty and humiliation.
The Mehrpooyan charity, headed by Mrs. Radmehr (Fereshteh Sadr Orafaie), is having a celebration to award Rahim a certificate and raise money to repay his money lender. When it fails to generate enough money from its members, the charity begs lender Bahram to forgive the ‘hero’ debt.
Bahram: “What exemplary attitude are you talking about? My attitude was exemplary when three years ago, because I considered him a member of my family, I gave a deposit check so that he could obtain a loan, start a business and help his family make it out. It was I who did a good deed! When he failed to honor the payments, I had to sell my daughter’s dowry and my wife’s jewelry to pay off all his debt, plus interest and penalties to the loan shark! And now he is presented as a hero, and I, who have done so much for him, am the bastard creditor! In other words, Rahim’s lender himself hovers above a money pit.
Unable to locate the woman to whom the coins were returned, Rahim cannot prove that his story qualifies him for a job on the local council. Meanwhile, rumors swirl that Rahim made up the whole “good Samaritan” thing. In desperation, he confronts Bahram and the encounter turns violent. Bahram’s daughter, Nazanin (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter), uses video from the episode to discredit her father’s alleged abuser, prompting the charity to withdraw Rahim’s funds and use them to save the life of a condemned man about to be executed. As time ticks away before he must return to prison, Rahim’s desperate contortions to save his tarnished reputation fail.
Prisons feature prominently in Iranian cinema. People are routinely imprisoned for debt in Iran, where authorities say more than 18,000 people were detained in 2018 for failing to pay a fine or contractual obligation.
A hero is a convincing work. Farhadi looks back on the tribulations of the victims of Iranian society. Although not the poorest of the poor, the film’s characters are caught in the grip of nearly impossible circumstances, despite their best intentions. They work mightily to overcome insurmountable obstacles. At every step, the viewer senses that life holds few rewards for the beleaguered, including the austere creditor Bahram. No amount of effort, Herculean or otherwise, is enough. The innumerable Rahim are dumped at the bottom of society, the prison of debtors.
As a whole, the cast plays skillfully to artistically materialize this reality. Farhadi stands out from the overwhelming majority of current filmmakers with the depth of his love and empathy for his characters and their struggles. He sees these as social problems and not as individual failings. Ultimately, it is not a question here of bad will but of a bad social organization.
Significantly, in an open letter posted November 17, 2021 on his Instagram account, Farhadi angrily responded to an anonymous individual who claimed the writer-director was both “pro-government” and “anti-government.” . The filmmaker vehemently rejected the accusation that he was “pro-government”.
“Over the years,” he wrote, “I tended to keep quiet, choosing to focus on my writing and filmmaking. It was my understanding that my work would be the appropriate response to accusations and insults from the government, and that no further clarification was necessary. However, this silence led many people to believe that they could say what they wanted about me and to assume that I wouldn’t answer.
Farhadi continued, “How can anyone associate me with a government whose extremist media has worked hard to destroy, marginalize and stigmatize me for the past few years. A government to which I have made my views clear on the suffering it has caused over the years… from the cruel discrimination against women and girls to the way the country has allowed the coronavirus to slaughter his people.
Farhadi referred to the fact that the Iranian authorities had submitted A hero as the country’s entry into the international category of this year’s Oscars. Addressing the government, he wrote, if this action “has led you to conclude that I am indebted to you, I now explicitly state that I have no problem with you reconsidering this decision. I I don’t care anymore about the fate of the film I made with all my heart Whether inside or outside Iran, this film will live on its merits.
At some point in A hero, Rahim blurts out that “I’m too naive for this world.” His full potential – his creativity, his ingenuity, his passion and his sincerity – is no match for the crushing jaws of an inhuman social order. He is tossed and beaten on the ground. He is being punished within the confines of an overcrowded prison, and he is also suffering in the arena of wider Iranian society during his period of “freedom”.