A Hero movie review: A slow-burn morality tale from a modern master
No one carves new space out of ordinary stories — a move, a marriage, a business debt — quite like Iran's Asghar Farhadi, the winner of a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar twice already this past decade (for A Separation and The Salesman). His latest, which took the Grand Prix at Cannes, centers on a man (Amir Jadidi) whose failure to repay a lender has earned him an ongoing jail term.
Divorced dad Rahim, with his gentle, halting speech and anxious smile, hardly seems like a criminal. But then prison here doesn't look much like we know it either: no industrial complex of cells and bars and nightsticked guards, just a sort of rundown rec center — minus the security grates at the gates, it could be a YMCA — where tired-looking men in tracks suits drink tea and do menial tasks. They also get day passes, and a brief reprieve brings an ecstatic Rahim into the arms of his girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldoost).
There's another reason for the giddiness of their reunion: Farkhondeh has stumbled on a lost purse with a cache of gold coins, and Rahim's path to redemption, they dare to hope, lays in its return. How could the community fail to be moved by an earnest single father and his selfless good deed? At first, at least, it works like a dream: the media comes calling, and Rahim is quickly cast as the humble hero, righteously forfeiting the found fortune that could so easily free him in order to let its rightful owner reclaim it. Even his son, a sweet-natured boy with a speech impediment, finds himself caught up in the whirlwind, his heart-tugging presence irresistible to the press.
But complications, karmically, ensue — a tangle of feints and half-truths that quickly cloud the conflicting details of Rahim's carelessly constructed story. His extended family, still smarting from the shame and strain his financial problems have already brought down on them, stay loyally at his side; so too at first do the various officials whose powers are enough to sway public opinion, though not necessarily to convince the furious former brother-in-law (Mohsen Tanabandeh) he's in arrears to, whose own daughter's dowry has been erased by Rahim's debts.
There's more than a little O. Henry irony in the unspiraling that follows, as best intentions converge with bad luck and worse decisions. And a lack of subtlety, too, in certain aspects of its execution (for all the film's focus on the power of modern social media, basic questions about the purse and its original owner seem to follow a strangely analog path). Jadidi's Rahim, with his matinee-idol jawline and liquid eyes, is easy to root for, but there's a manic edge to him too — a desperation to be admired and understood that might read less as misguided naiveté than a profound disconnect with reality.
A Hero (in limited release now and on Amazon Prime Video Jan. 21) lets his character live in that liminal space, and the movie's beauty often comes through the small observational moments — intimate, naturalistic scenes of domesticity and the everyday grind of a working society — that Farhadi polishes like stones, his camera unobtrusive but all-seeing. Even as the story's inevitable reckoning descends, Farhadi allows his modest morality tale to take on a note of battered, ambiguous hope: a cautionary fable whose purest notes ring poignantly, painfully true. Grade: A–