At the beginning of “A Hero,” Rahim (Amir Jahidi) is released from debtor’s prison on a two-day leave, hoping he can work out a compromise with his creditor. For help, he seeks out his cousin, a construction worker restoring a historic structure in danger of collapsing in the desert. The towering scaffold Rahim must climb might stand as a metaphor for the movie, which is a marvel of intricate construction. With exquisite timing and attention to detail, writer-director Asghar Farhadi builds a sturdy and suspenseful plot out of ordinary situations and fills it with rich, resonant insights.
His earlier movies — including “Everybody Knows” (shot in 2018 in Spain) and “A Separation,” his 2012 breakup masterpiece — first established and later refined his visual style and choice of subject matter. In a previous generation, Farhadi would have been regarded as a distinguished director in the world cinema on a par with Fellini, Bergman and Kurosawa. He is a realist and a lucid, disciplined storyteller. His movies take place in contemporary environments and modern urban settings. He is also a moralist. He believes in the ethics of confronting complex experiences and expresses that belief through the concision of storytelling art.
Rahim meets his girlfriend, a speech therapist named Farkondeh (Sahar Goldust), who shows him the bag she luckily discovered, one she hopes will buy his way out of prison and allow them to get married. The value of the 17 gold coins, though, isn’t enough to satisfy his creditor, a bitter, unsympathetic print shop owner named Hossein (Ali Reza Jahandideh). Failing to reason with Hossein, from whom he once borrowed money as a business partner, Rahim hits on an idea: He will pretend to have found the bag, report the lost coins and return them to their owner. In a pivotal scene, Rahim’s story of altruism goes viral on social media. The prison officials televise his redemption. A major charity uses his name to collect donations that could release Rahim from his debt.
This is only the beginning of “A Hero.” Farhadi’s modern good-Samaritan fairy tale grows increasingly thorny with lies, suspicions and manipulations. Hossein is skeptical of Rahim’s transformation into a saint. Seemingly insignificant questions and statements take on sinister importance. Farhadi’s movies invariably concern the dense weave of connections between family and business in Iran — Hossein is Rahim’s ex-wife’s brother in-law and Rahim’s main source of support is his sister’s husband (Mohsen Tanabandeh). Add the unpredictable injustices of ordinary existence — why does Hossein’s daughter seem to hate Rahim more than anyone else? — and the movie is enveloped by a vivid and powerful sense of life spinning out of control.
This is a painful tale of imaginary (and not-so-imaginary) legal and moral crimes and literal punishment. “A Hero” is about trust and honor, about falling prey to the brutal machinery of a bureaucratic society, about the pitfalls of making wrong decisions. It is also about money and self-sacrifice. Farhadi’s control over all these elements is astonishing, as are the performances of his actors. The final scene is at once riveting and heartbreaking. Life, as they say, goes on.