There is a common thread in the filmography of the Iranian Asghar Farhadi. He portrays the mundane as art, giving the stories of real people an aura of epic tragedy. It’s not easy, it’s not always pleasant, but his cinema is mesmerizing and essential.
Things are no different with “A Hero”, which returns Iran to its lens after the brief “Everybody Knows” interlude, thriller international cast, Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem at the forefront. Rather than embracing a genre, Farhadi takes up realism in a story about secrets and lies.
At the center is Rahim (the exceptional Amir Jadidi), who is released from prison on a two-day leave of absence to pay off a debt to his ex-brother-in-law. Unable to raise the money, he tries to sell a bag with a dozen gold coins found by his girlfriend, but ends up returning it to its owner.
The seemingly altruistic act sets off a spiral in which he is celebrated as a “hero” by the media, while his honor is called into question. The situation worsens when his creditor plants the doubt that the situation could have been set up for Rahim’s benefit.
“A Hero” is a small tragedy built on mistakes. Its protagonist acts, at the same time, in a naive and calculating way. Farhadi’s camera doesn’t act as a moral ruler, but it becomes increasingly suffocating as the little lies pile up, leaving Rahim at a dead end.
Debt, after all, is also honorable, currency many times more valuable than money itself. By portraying the minutiae of Iranian society, its power relations and its social approach, Farhadi builds a subtly immersive approach to a panorama of the human condition that may seem alien for its setting, but which awakens an immediate connection for being so universal.
It is curious how the destruction of reputations, previously spread among neighbors’ windows, is irreversibly amplified by social networks. A lie can be stifled, says “A Hero”, unless it is reproduced at the unstoppable speed of the internet.
Asghar Farhadi may not be operating here with the same verve as his most celebrated works, the award-winning “A Separation” and “The Apartment.” Few filmmakers, however, manage to portray with such naturalness and empathy the infinite capacity of the human being to crumble his own life like a house of cards.
A good film doesn’t go up to a pulpit to weave a moral lesson, it lets its story take care of nudging the audience. “A Hero” triumphs by amplifying the drama of a man lost by his own choices into a complex, provocative and engaging plot.