For fans of international films, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has been a reliably good storyteller. Two of his films – 2011’s A Separation and 2016’s The Salesman – won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (now named Best International Feature Film), and his other films have been well-regarded and rewarded with a slew of honors.
His latest film, A Hero, is a morality tale that is as well made as his other films, but features a story that hinges on a very thin plot point. It centers on Rahim (Amir Jadidi), who’s been granted two days leave from prison, where he is serving time for failure to pay a debt. When an attempt to pay his creditor with some dubiously-obtained gold coins goes awry, Rahim decides to do the honorable thing and return the gold that was never his in the first place.
It’s this decision that starts a cascade of poor choices by Rahim and strange reactions by those affected by the choices. He publicizes the return of the purse, most likely to try to curry favor with the prison and the public at large. And while that tack mostly works, a few doubters, including his creditor and a person who controls the fate of a potential job, keep his plan from succeeding the way he wants it to.
When it comes to understanding a story about an unfamiliar culture, international audiences can have many bumps in the road. For instance, the concept of going to jail for failing to pay a debt is one that is foreign to Americans, having not been used widely in the United States since the mid-1800s. But it’s another particular aspect of Iranian culture shown in the film that proves to be a serious impediment in Farhadi’s storytelling.
Rahim receives enormous attention for his “good deed” of returning the purse, including a TV interview, an official commendation, a fundraiser to help pay his debt, and more. The idea of the simple act, especially one that is not witnessed by anyone but his family, getting this much attention is eyebrow-raising at best, laughable at worst. The fact that the entire dramatic arc of the film relies on so many people making such a fuss about his seemingly-selfless act is a showstopper in the bad sense of the word.
As the attention forces Rahim to keep digging himself in deeper on his initial lie, the film never becomes believable or interesting, with Farhadi seeming to think that the situation contains a deeper meaning than it actually does. It raises the question of the impact watching something in a foreign language can have. If this was an American film in English, would it be as warmly received?
None of the actors are bad, but the questionable nature of the story holds back their performances. Jadidi is required to go back and forth between being pleading and indignant, and he never quite gains a foothold on the performance.
In the case of A Hero, Farhadi doesn’t seem to understand that you can only add on so many story elements before the whole thing starts to strain under the weight. If he had made the story a bit subtler, one that didn’t make the audience suspend their disbelief so much, it might have been more successful.
A Hero opens in select theaters on January 7. It debuts on Amazon Prime Video on January 21.