Is it? Behind his marquee good looks and a gleaming smile that alternates with hangdog glumness, Rahim remains opaque, and this opacity conduces to speculation regarding his motives and, well, his heart. When a fellow inmate berates him for helping the prison authorities “cover up their shit,” we too wonder, why did he decide to give the money back? What’s he trying to get? Personal questions provoke philosophical ones. As Rahim receives first accolades and then a job offer, redemption becomes compensation, and his seemingly impulsive act of goodness begins to look shrewd. Does this change its meaning? Are good deeds vitiated by ulterior motives? Bahram, in turn, bluntly raises the question: Should Rahim be celebrated simply because he refrained from stealing the gold? “Where in the world are people celebrated for not doing wrong?” Bahram asks, exasperated, when the charity urges him to forgive Rahim’s debt. And then there are Bahram’s own travails. He discloses that in order to pay off the loan shark Rahim owed money to, he had to sell precious family jewelry. “Now he’s a hero and I’m the bastard creditor? What about my goodness?”
Where most contemporary directors subsume the ethical into the psychological (take Maggie Gyllenhaal’s recent The Lost Daughter, for instance, in which the theft of a child’s doll has no ethical dimension at all, serving only to illuminate the inner struggles of the protagonist), Farhadi once again keeps ethical considerations front and center. Bit by bit, meanwhile, Rahim’s redemption falls apart, as suspicions are fed by social-media rumors, and the same players who opportunistically manufactured his redemptive story now run from it. Lionization becomes vilification, leaving us to sort out the truth. That’s never easy in a Farhadi movie, where even the basics of what happened in any event, let alone the workings of the human heart, remain inscrutable. An hour into A Hero, we may begin to doubt what we saw at the start. What exactly did happen, for instance, when Rahim took the coins to the gold dealer?
In his interview with Mike Leigh, Farhadi discussed the discovery, early in his career, of how “details can cause a disaster.” What he meant was a disaster of interpretation—the way a small utterance or action, innocuous-seeming at the time, may loom large in light of a subsequent crisis. While only some of his films portray an actual crime, all his films are investigations: of actions committed in the heat of a moment, of half-truths and evasions, of feckless attempts at undoing damaging errors. What’s both riveting and unsettling in these relentless inquiries is how we ourselves are implicated. There are plenty of directors—from Lars von Trier to Neil LaBute to Todd Solondz to Michael Haneke—who have built their cinematic visions on misanthropy. Not Farhadi. I’m hard-pressed to think of a director who portrays his characters this sympathetically while judging them this balefully. Eventually in A Hero, Rahim must either prove his bona fides to the charity group by producing the woman whose bag he returned, or lose his job offer. Unable to find her, he undertakes a fraudulent pretense. When the ploy goes south, our emotions go with it. The result is the opposite of catharsis; it is a sickening feeling of complicity. Forgiveness in Farhadi’s movies is rooted in this queasy recognition. His characters may be errant, fearful, and self-serving, yet we are never allowed to pile on. Instead, we find ourselves steered back again and again into the large murky zone where so much human action and intention reside. We don’t judge them because we are them.
Discussing the origins of A Hero, Farhadi has cited his reservations about “the tendency to create heroes in a society,” calling it “a way for people to run away from their own individual responsibilities”—a carefully couched comment likely to resonate in a self-proclaimed revolutionary society like Iran, where a repressive regime cloaks itself (and its widespread corruption) in moral righteousness and a culture of public heroism. Up against the zeal of a rigidly dogmatic theocracy, Farhadi’s films implicitly offer a brief for the values and habits of liberalism: skepticism, ambiguity, and the humility of withholding judgment in the face of how little we know.
A Hero lacks the sharp focus on family and marriage of Farhadi’s other films, and as a result I found it less emotionally involving than A Separation or The Salesman. Yet it has a single-minded power. Exuding the timeless quality of a scriptural parable or philosophical dialogue, the movie juxtaposes the simplified narratives of virtue put out for public consumption—Rahim actually has a Certificate of Goodness, issued by the charity, that he carries around with him—with the tangled network of unknowables that is reality. In its obsession with motive, A Hero goes questing for the Great White Whale of Goodness, plowing through waves of opportunism and hypocrisy in search of a single disinterested deed. In the end, as if sick of mixed motives, including his own, Rahim decides on an action that is morally correct but that guarantees he will have to return to prison. The tradeoff makes for a downbeat ending, and as our disgraced hero shuffles ignominiously back to jail, it’s hard not to see him as a kind of sacrifice tossed on the movie’s ethical pyre.
It would be irresponsible not to close the discussion of A Hero with the absurdly germane backstory of the film itself. As has been widely reported, Farhadi is currently embroiled in a legal dispute over his film’s source material. In 2015 a young filmmaker named Azadeh Masihzadeh made a documentary film, All Winners, All Losers, based on the real-life story of a man who returned a bag of money he found while on leave from a debtors’ prison in Iran. Masihzadeh’s film stemmed from an assignment she got in a filmmaking class that Farhadi was teaching. Six years later, when A Hero appeared, Masihzadeh charged plagiarism, and sued for copyright infringement—whereupon Farhadi countersued for defamation. The defamation case was recently dismissed, but elements of the plagiarism case currently remain under litigation.
Both cases center on the question of whether the initial idea for the story came from Farhadi or was dug up by Masihzadeh herself. If this were a Farhadi film, we can imagine how things would go from here. Did the teacher know about the original source, even if he claims not to have? Did he and his student meet at a café somewhere and discuss it? And might we—or someone—be privy to the one damaging detail that can cause disaster? It would be very ironic if a court somewhere found the detail that would either implicate or exonerate this most forensic of directors. But life doesn’t always imitate art, and as any student of Farhadi’s intense, elusive, and ambiguous films will tell you, we may never fully know.