Murphy’s Law posits that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Farhadi’s Law — a term coined by this critic to describe the catastrophic moral dilemmas characters in Asghar Farhadi films tend to find themselves in — takes this notion a step further by arguing that the intersecting lines of class, gender, and religion in modern-day Iran make Murphy’s Law more than just an adage. When it comes to traversing the delicate tightrope of societal norms on display in Farhadi’s films, Murphy’s Law is a guarantee. Although this Farhadian concept was largely popularized by the filmmaker’s fifth and most widely known film, A Separation (2011), there are shades of it in each of the two-time Oscar-winner’s films that followed. A Hero, Farhadi’s ninth feature and his latest in a career-spanning line of superb social commentaries, is some of the heaviest, most serpentine work from the writer-director thus far. It’s also some of his best.
Audiences first meet Rahim (Amir Jadidi) outside of an Iranian prison — an unexpected location for a titular hero to be emerging from, to be sure, but fear not: Rahim is not guilty of some violent offense. It’s only a little debt. He has just begun a special two-day probationary period, a rare 48-hour stroke of good luck amongst an otherwise bleak five-year prison sentence for failing to repay his creditor (who also happens to be his former brother-in-law). Despite this dark cloud looming over his head, he’s nevertheless excited to see his girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldoost), his sister, and his son for the first time in ages. His endearing interactions with these loved ones confirm what could already be discerned through observation: Rahim is a sympathetic, hapless Charlie Brown of a man who has had the football pulled away from him one too many times by the Lucy called life. Naturally, according to Farhadi’s Law, Rahim’s visit cannot stay this pleasant for long.
Farkhondeh’s discovery of a purse filled with enough gold coins to pay back the majority of Rahim’s debt presents a complicated choice: keep the money and free Rahim, or turn the purse over to the authorities and return to prison for the remainder of the sentence? At first, they choose the former. However, when trying to sell the coins, the two interpret a string of inconveniences as a sign that they should simply give the purse back to its rightful owner instead. Rahim’s backpedaling is interpreted as incredibly noble because no one knows of his and Farkhondeh’s original plan. He returns to prison still indebted, but when a woman who claims to own the purse calls Rahim, the higher-ups catch wind of his so-called selfless act and organize an interview with the news. This newfound media attention kicks off a chain of dramatic dominos, leaving Rahim and family struggling to keep up with the web of lies he’s inadvertently woven.
With each new painful twist of the story, the brilliance of Farhadi’s screenplay becomes clearer. He manages to frame every decision Rahim makes as both the best and worst possible choice, resulting in an unbelievably tense viewing experience that only gets more anxiety-inducing with each additional turn. In a different director’s hands, A Hero could almost be a comedy — there are so many mishaps, so many misunderstandings, and so many violated social conventions, it wouldn’t be hard to transform Farhadi’s work from a serious contemporary melodrama to a riotous satire of present-day Iran. That’s what makes it so great as a drama, though: If tragedy plus time equals comedy, then this film is just the first part of that equation. Perhaps one day Rahim and Farkhondeh can look back and laugh at all that went on here, but in the moment — in which Farhadi has immersed the viewer through his documentary-style direction — it’s anything but funny. It’s excruciating.
It’s fascinating to consider the way the world builds up people like Rahim overnight, showering them with accolades and glorifying them to no end, only to tear them down just as fast at the slightest hint of wrongdoing. A Hero masterfully skewers this toxic trait of our media, boldly pointing the finger at the ones who help everyday people achieve their 15 minutes of fame and then encourage the public to pick the very same people apart the second the goodwill is exhausted and the charm wears off. Can a good deed still be described as good if the person once considered not doing it to begin with? And is a good deed even worth doing if it brings unwanted attention? There’s no one on the planet who is 100% upstanding and right all the time, so why do the media and the online mob prefer to pretend otherwise?
Honesty, glory, goodness, freedom (or lack thereof) — these values are central to the Iranian (and American) way of life. Even if viewers know nothing about the bureaucracy of Iran or the country’s legal system, A Hero still rings true because of its handling of these universal values. Rahim’s character and his motivations are constantly being questioned not only by the people that stand between him and redemption but also by the viewer and their assumptions about him. Does he merely have bad luck, or is he really just a bad liar? Is he truly a good person, or is he actually just a good actor? Not since A Separation has Asghar Farhadi crafted a drama so layered, so complex, and so intricate. A Hero only reinforces his status as one of the most talented dramatic filmmakers currently working today.
A Hero opens in select local theaters on Jan. 7.