There is a common thread in Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s work. He creates characters that exist in gray areas, with no clear heroes or villains. It’s a reflection of real-life, giving authenticity and complexity to the story which makes for captivating cinema. In “A Hero” our protagonist Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is on a two-day prison furlough during which he plans to convince his unrelenting creditor Braham (Mohsen Tanabandeh) to forgive his debt by getting a job, asking for forgiveness, and paying back some of the money. His strategy hits a snag that involves a bag of gold coins, a good deed, mounting deception, an accomplice girlfriend, a charitable organization, corrupt officials, and a killer smile. Not necessarily in that order.

The setting, Shiraz the city of poets in southwestern Iran where towering historical monuments are part of the landscape including Naghsh-e-Rostam a believed Persepolis royal cemetery carved into the side of a mountain. It’s the first place Rahim visits during his 48-hour furlough to reconnect with his brother-in-law Hossein (Alireza Jahandideh) who promises to help Rahim find a job. Hossein will eventually become the story’s VIP. His good-natured temperament and level head help deescalate the plethora of situations caused by Rahim’s behavior.

The trouble started three years ago after Rahim borrowed money from a loan shark to start a business. When he couldn’t pay it back, his father-in-law Braham had to use his daughter’s dowry to pay off the debt. Rahim’s marriage dissolved and he found himself in prison after failing to pay back Braham, who understandably still holds a grudge.

Sahar Goldust delivers a terrific performance as Rahim’s secret fiancé Farkhondeh. She finds a lost handbag filled with 17 gold coins. Rahim’s troubles are over! They can sell the coins to pay back Braham who they hope will drop the charges, so Rahim won’t have to return to prison. When they get the coins appraised it’s not enough to pay off the debt. When Braham refuses to budge (he wants the full amount owed or nothing), Rahim comes up with Plan B, as in blunder.

Rahim decides to seek out the coins’ owner in a very public manner (flyers go up all over Shiraz) making him look like a good Samaritan and it works, sort of. A distressed lady shows up to claim the coins which she hid from her unemployed husband after earning them over time. She accurately describes the bag, leaves, but Rahim’s sister fails to get her name or contact info. In this modern age of social media where news travels at a lighting fast rate, Rahim’s story goes viral with a hero angle — he’s in prison for debt but instead of using the coins to help pay it off he did the right thing and returned them to their rightful owner — he’s interviewed on local television, he receives a certificate for his good deed, and a charitable organization begins to raise funds to pay off Rahim’s debt.

Just when all of Rahim’s troubles seem to be over, his life begins a downward spiral in Farhadi’s skillfully written thriller that continues to raise the tension after several false moments of respite. Amir Jadidi’s nuanced performance succeeds on various levels. Rahim’s deeds are the film’s catalyst. Yet, he’s a good-looking guy with a killer smile and a demure personality that helps him backpedal out of one situation after another. Lies are covered by more lies as the deception mounts. Soon you find yourself wanting to yell out at the screen “JUST TELL THE TRUTH!”

Another intriguing part of the film is how every character is questionable. Do the prison officials and charitable organization really have Rahim’s best interest in mind? Where is the lady with gold coins? Were they really hers? It’s also fascinating that despite all his deception, the audience never abandons Rahim. Is he really a good Samaritan? We know he’s a bad con man and a failed husband, but in the scene where Rahim refuses to let a prison official exploit his stuttering son (Saleh Karimai) even if it could help his cause, the feelings of hope for our protagonist seem warranted.

Asghar Farhadi creates vivid characters and places them in situations based on real life. So many of his films have a documentary feel giving the audience a voyeuristic view into the lives of actual people suffering a crisis as we forget they are actors playing a part in the writer-director’s fabricated world. After winning two Oscars for 2011’s “A Separation” and 2016’s “The Salesman”, Farhadi continues to deliver taut dramas filled with contention that showcase humanity’s struggle for righteousness against overwhelming odds. If “A Hero” becomes your first introduction to his work, follow it up with a viewing of one of my personal favorites, 2009’s “About Elly.”

(4 stars)

Now showing in select theaters including The Grand Berry Theater (Fort Worth), Angelika Film Center (Dallas), and Angelika Film Center (Plano). Streaming on Amazon Prime beginning January 21st.

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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