Farhadi’s films set in Iran are immersed in the norms of the country, but Rahim’s specific experience rings familiar to an American. With an obsolete degree in calligraphy, Rahim’s overeducated in a country without enough jobs. Paths to self-improvement require money he doesn’t have from banks that won’t lend to him, trapping him in a vicious cycle where his lack of funds pushes him out of above-board financing and towards underground loan sharks. Rahim understands everything that had to happen to push him to this place, but he finds little sympathy because so many others are like him. His supposed public acts, however, are unique, and separate him from the other struggling Iranians and debt prisoners. The injustice that put Rahim into prison is far greater than some embellishment around a human interest, but it’s easy to imagine the response in America if one those teachers stuffed into a cash tornado box at a pro sports game turned out to be the spouse of a high-powered lawyer instead of a lower-middle class scrounger. The outrage would be that the free cash went to someone who didn’t need it, as opposed to the sick spectacle of the whole demonstration. Farhadi isolates the individual venial sin against the systemic mortal one, and allows the unseen public to come to the obvious choice of which to focus on.
Rahim’s weaponized self-pity keeps him from being the noble sufferer he would like to be perceived as, and it makes A Hero into a thornier film. He’s not a strong planner based on the compounding holes in his story, but he has the soft-spoken manner and voice to sell his goodness to anyone unwilling to look deeper. A Hero plays a trick on the viewer as surely as Rahim and the organizations that can benefit from this ruse are playing a trick on the public. When the charity has a fundraiser in Rahim’s honor, his son Siavash (Saleh Karimaei) is prodded to take the podium. The viewer understands that the son has a stuttering problem and that Rahim has not been completely forthright to this point, but Siavash tearfully and haltingly gets his words out in an affecting sequence for the viewer and the audience. This kid was made to stand in front of a crowd and TV cameras, but he wants his father back as much as Rahim wants to be with his son. A Hero is constantly weighing the amount of bad necessary to achieve something good, judging each successive scenario as it contributes to each side of the scale of public opinion.
The moral juggling of A Hero takes place alongside the warmth of Iranian households that puts Rahim’s struggle in perspective. It’s worth the lies if he can get back to a place of playfully arguing over who gets the crispiest tahdig and soothing Siavash’s divorce-induced anger as opposed to letting it fester as he approaches adolescence. Farhadi is no fan of the Iranian government, but his love for Iranians has been constant throughout his filmography, practically making him his country’s most effective diplomat. A podcast host reviewing A Separation in 2011 emphatically wondered how the US could ever go to war with a people so beautifully captured in all their complexity. If Rick’s portal gun could find a universe where the US and Iran were more amenable or even allied, it would be a place worth visiting. A-