Cannes 2021: Asghar Farhadi's 'A Hero' is a Gripping, Complex Tale
by Alex Billington
July 14, 2021
Often the most engaging, thought-provoking stories in cinema are those with complex characters and moral provocations. They don't offer black and white interpretations, they make us question whether our prejudice is tainting our opinion on what's happening, and allow us to learn even more about the incessant complexity of humanity. Acclaimed Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has returned to the 2021 Cannes Film Festival with his latest film, a drama called A Hero (originally Ghahreman in Persian) set in modern day Shiraz. This is his best film since A Separation, a return to form for Asghar Farhadi telling incredibly taut, thrilling stories about morality tales and characters trying their best in a world that won't let them succeed. I loved it and was caught up in it and was so shaken by the film that it messed up my emotions for the rest of the day.
Asghar Farhadi's A Hero introduces us to a man named Rahim, played by Amir Jadidi in an astounding performance, who is in a low-security prison because of a massive debt he was unable to repay. During his two-day leave, he tries to convince his creditor to withdraw his complaint against the payment of part of the sum. At first he tries to sell gold coins provided to him by his fiance-to-be, but then backs down and decides to instead return the coins found in a bag to their rightful owner. This act turns him into "a hero" and the local community starts offering him praise and respect. Just as things are starting to look promising, just as he has a chance to get out of prison and return to his family, it all gets derailed. Everything begins to fall apart due to rumors and frustration from the people who don't like him and don't want him to be free. The more he tries to be honest, the more he tries to solve problems and get on the right track, the worse it gets.
The film is as frustrating and anxiety-inducing as they come, mostly because it's all about watching this man get screwed over by terrible people who just don't want to help a good person succeed. So many people are selfish and suspicious, and while this is clearly Farhadi criticizing Iranian society, it is a universal issue in almost every country these days. There are glimmers of hope and glimmers of goodness, people who do want to try and help, including a humble taxi driver who was once in prison as well. As frustrating as the film is, by design of course, it's also courageous and captivating. I love almost everything about it. I felt this story in my bones. You do something good, and everyone doubts it. Yet everyone else gets away with lies and hate. And no matter how hard you try, you will never convince anyone you're a good person if they don't witness it with their own eyes and validate every last detail. If anything, this film bothers me so much because it's such an accurate and tragic depiction of just how unjust and ridiculous our world is. And that really disturbs me.
What is remarkably brilliant and astute about Farhadi's storytelling is how complex and dynamic the morals are. Almost everyone in the film does something that could be considered "bad" or "wrong", yet so many of them are still good people. So many are just frustrated by the way things work. And even the villain of the film, who is initially introduced as a seeingly harmless man who just wants his money back, is actually worse than he seems on the surface. He is the worst part of the story. But he's portrayed in a way that many will understand him, and may never recognize the bad within him. They may not even see that he's the problem, not because he wants his money back, but because he refuses to see the good in anyone. He refuses to accept that someone might be trying to fix things, he refuses to accept that everyone has a family and that someone who has been locked away for debt just wants to get home to them again. Even Rahim has some major flaws, but that doesn't mean he deserves everything bad that happens or should stay in prison. Not by a long shot.
I'm worried that some people will watch this film and not be able to sympathize with Rahim or understand his plight. He is a good man, objectively, and anyone who doesn't see that is wrong. He can have flaws, he can be a complex person, but he is still worthy of empathy. Jadidi plays him perfectly - with his irresistible smile and charm, and this sadness deep down that occasionally breaks through. He may never admit it, but I am sure Farhadi's telling this story to show us how a good man, not even "a hero" as the title says, but just a good man trying to be a good man, can be broken down and ruined by a society that rejects good people and treats them like the villains. And if you fall for that, you are part of the problem. A Hero is a film about how good people are constantly screwed over, how hard it is to prove you're good, while so many other terrible people always get away with being terrible. And while it's not a problem we can solve easily, it is something we should be thinking about, and thankfully we have films like this to push us be a bit more understanding.