Usually, when a movie character finds a mysterious bag full of money, the worst thing they can possibly do is keep the money and hope no one finds out. The main character of Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi's A Hero faces this familiar dilemma, and despite being in desperate need of the money, he ultimately decides to do the right thing. But for Rahim (Amir Jadidi), returning the bag of gold coins to its grateful owner is just the first step in an escalating series of misjudgments, white lies and impulsive errors that slowly add up to ruin his fragile redemption.
When Rahim is presented with the bag of money, he's out on a two-day leave from his imprisonment for an unpaid debt, and since paying off his creditor would allow him to be released from prison, he's already sacrificing security for morality by giving the money back. When prison officials find out about his selfless act, they seize on it as an opportunity for good publicity for the prison, to distract from a recent inmate suicide. Soon, Rahim is being interviewed on TV, and he's already fabricating details of his account, to protect the identity of the fiancee his family doesn't know about.
So the story unfolds, as every new incident presents Rahim with a new ethical quandary, all in service of his efforts to pay off the bitter man who guaranteed his business loan. Rahim only wants to start a new life with his fiancee and his son, but each development in the saga of his good deed brings in new people with their own agendas, from prison officials to charity organizers to Rahim's own family members. As usual, Farhadi builds a movie around melodramatic plot elements that could be lifted from a soap opera, but he delivers them in a naturalistic, understated style that emphasizes the human toll of each decision and betrayal.
Still, A Hero is less emotionally engaging than Farhadi's best work (including Oscar winners A Separation and The Salesman), and at a certain point all of Rahim's misfortunes become ridiculous and repetitive. Even as Rahim grows more and more frustrated with the demands placed on him, Jadidi's performance remains grounded, and Rahim approaches every new setback with the same pained smile, determined to somehow make the best of the situation.
The creditor who refuses to forgive Rahim's debt or even accept partial payment may seem like the bad guy, but Farhadi finds room for his perspective as well, to illustrate that Rahim's decision-making skills may have been suspect for quite some time.
Farhadi builds sometimes unbearable discomfort in small, mundane moments, from a meeting with a stubborn civil service functionary who's supposed to give Rahim a job, to the recording of a social media message from Rahim's son (who suffers from a severe speech impediment) in defense of his father. Rahim's plight is the product of both unique social conditions in Iran (where debtors' prisons remain legal) and the global proliferation of social media, making every feel-good story into a viral sensation that can quickly turn sour. The combination of traditional and modern values provides some fascinating tension to the story.
A Hero often works better as an examination of that tension than as the kind of finely observed character drama for which Farhadi is best known. Farhadi has put his various characters through so many inescapable predicaments that this latest feels a bit schematic, even if its individual elements can still create a powerful impact. ♦A HERO