Asghar Farhadi has made a tangled film about the tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive, in that calmly observant, realist yet information-withholding style with which this director made his name. In way, A Hero is a slice-of-life story, in which the “i”s and the “t”s are not necessarily dotted and crossed like a regular screenplay; it has the unsatisfactory, unclear messiness that real life has. There is plenty of interest here - and yet I have to admit to slight reservations about the melodramatic contrivances, which stretch credulity a little.
A Hero is a film that works because of a clever and subtle performance from Amir Jadidi as Rahim, a divorced father who has just been released from jail on a two-day parole, having been imprisoned for debt. He is a man with a bright yet strange, desperate smile, like one of the poor relations in Dickens. He is looking forward to being reunited with his girlfriend, his supportive sister and his beloved son – a gentle, sensitive boy with a speech impediment. Rahim is a man who believes that some sort of charming niceness might still get him get out of a jam. But he has a very specific plan for cancelling his prison sentence. His girlfriend has found a handbag in the street containing what appear to be gold coins: if they could sell them to a gold dealer, might that not raise enough for a deposit to persuade his creditor to forgive the debt?
But when the coins prove to be worth less than they thought, Rahim muddles his way towards a new plan: why not put up notices around the streets announcing a found bag and get good publicity for being a heartbreakingly honest guy, a reformed lawbreaker who passed up the chance for easy money? The bag’s owner gratefully contacts Rahim’s sister, and the prison authorities themselves publicise Rahim’s good-guy routine, eager themselves for good publicity after an ugly suicide at the jail. Rahim gives a TV news interview in which he claims that it was he who providentially found the bag, and a charitable foundation is moved to raise money for this new hero of selflessness. And Rahim does not hesitate to use his poor, stammering son to garner sympathy from the public.
But his creditor, a family friend, is deeply irritated by Rahim’s pass-agg, saintly new image, especially as he himself was nearly ruined by Rahim’s slippery business practices. And then a sceptical public official, from whom Rahim is expecting employment as part of his jail release scheme, demands proof that the lady who lost the bag even exists. And when Rahim can’t find her, he wheedlingly persuades his girlfriend to pose as this woman. Moreover, as his imposture unravels, the increasingly dismayed charity gives the money instead to the wife of a condemned man (to get his death sentence commuted) and Rahim has the cheek to claim that this too was his own, heroically selfless idea.
It’s an ingenious high-concept premise, like a literary short story. Yet the plot holes are obvious from the outset. Nobody asks Rahim the obvious question: if he wanted to be a good citizen, why did he not simply hand the found bag in at a police station? Putting up flyers was a clearly inefficient and self-serving idea. We don’t see Rahim’s ex-wife, although custody and visiting arrangements with their son must surely be an issue.
There are two alarming and chaotic fights in the film – scuffles rather – and the narrative is eventually to turn on that contemporary yet convenient device: the covert mobile-phone video, with which Rahim appears to be blackmailed, but which is then shared on social media to facilitate another plot move. A Hero is an engaging and even intriguing film, but I wonder if its realist mannerisms are concealing a slightly unfocused story.
• A Hero screened at the Cannes film festival and is released on 7 January in the UK in cinemas, and on 21 January on Amazon Prime Video.