Twice an Oscar winner, for A Separation and The Salesman, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi must be a favourite to add more awards to his glittering collection with his latest film, A Hero – it’s already bagged him a Grand Prix at Cannes.
And indeed, gold is what this film’s all about, the plot and premise turning on that filmic staple of a bag of treasure, in this case 17 gold coins found in handbag at a bus stop in the city of Shiraz.
The coins come into the possession of a man, Rahim Soltani (Amir Jadidi), who is out on a few day’s release from debtor’s prison, who sees the money as a sure-fire way of paying off his debts, getting out of jail and beginning a new life with his girlfriend Farkondeh, in whose custody to coins appear to be.
However, when the pair excitedly visit a gold dealer on Rahim’s first day of freedom, they find the treasure isn’t as valuable as they’d hoped and Rahim comes up with another plan, sticking up notices around the neighbourhood for the lost bag and hoping for some kind of reward, a deed which might restore his reputation, and earn him a bit of cash.
The prisoner’s seemingly selfless act is soon the talk of the neighbourhood and he’s on the TV and in the newspapers and – apparently – on social media, although rather strangely Farhadi rarely shows us any mobile phones or computers, even if Rahim’s pitiable, stammering son Saivash is constantly on a tablet.
Quickly, however, the simple plan starts to get very complicated. Living up to the twisted maxim that no good deed goes unpunished, fissures begin appearing in the rock face of the story, like the ancient ruins of Persepolis which feature so dramatically in the film’s opening shots. Who really found the bag? And who is this woman who turns up to claim it? And why were the prison authorities so quick to acclaim their reformed star inmate? Why won’t Rahim’s creditor, the grumpy bully Bahram, give a guy a break?
The throat tightens as we watch Rahim wrap himself deeper in his own machinations. As played by Jadidi, he looks like an innocent man with an optimistic smile yet he’s also simmering beneath with a desperation and an eye for deception. It’s not even clear if he deserves our sympathy at all. A little exaggeration goes a long way here and suddenly we are seeking truth and moral rectitude in a society that seems very quick to defend its own honour, a town holding out for a hero, a role which frankly Rahim isn’t up to.
It gets worse when a jobsworth from the parole board who might find him some work after prison is tasked with verifying Rahim’s story and all the characters end up tying themselves in further knots of dilemna, even the well-intentioned charity commission who’ve had a publicity-grabbing whip-round for Rahim and now risk tarnishing their image by association.
Shot with precision, written with elegance and unfolding at a thriller-like pace, A Hero is one of the key movies in this awards season. There are definite echoes of Fahardi’s best work, particularly as A Hero remains in the secular realm to give us a real look at modern Iran, depicting households, bickering families having delicious-looking spreads, and busy offices, Saivash’s speech therapy school (where it turns out Rahim’s girlfriend also works as a teacher), busy streets and cafes, and a bustling indoor bazaar that becomes the location for two brilliant, tense scuffle scenes.
The film leaves many of its question marks dangling but confusion, moral and narrative, is surely part of the point and Farhadi – and the enigmatic smile of his protagonist – aren’t about to give things away that easily.