A review on Asghar Farhadi’s “A Hero” (2021)
By Masood Sabet
Rahim is in prison, having failed to repay his paltry debt to his former brother in law. He gets out on a two-day leave, on a quest to appease his estranged creditor, so Rahim could be released permanently. There is hope in the beginning, as he seems to have acquired a few gold coins, which are potentially enough to repay half of his debt. As the plot unfolds, we realize the coins to have been found on the street by Rahim’s girlfriend, Farkhondeh. Rahim cannot bring himself to sell the coins and instead, tries to find the real owner. This heroic act gets noticed and Rahim is on his way to reap the fruit of being faithful to his moral convictions. However, some apparent holes in Rahim’s story brings about serious doubts over its truthfulness. The situation escalates, and the “certified” hero is decrowned and disgraced overnight. Rahim goes back to prison, defeated and crushed by the very same powerful forces that once came to his aid. Farhadi is known for his social commentary, but in “A Hero”, his subtle, yet ever-present symbolism, his consistent visual style, and his almost immaculate narrative proves him, once more, a master of his craft and a genius in his unique style of storytelling.
Symbolism is inherent in any form of creation, as it is mostly ascribed to man’s collective unconscious. However, in an auteur’s work, symbols are consistent and integrated in a way to contribute most to the vision in the artist’s mind. In a rough categorization, the film’s characters are divided into two opposing fronts: the suppressors and the suppressed. Rahim and Farkhondeh fall into the latter, and the rest belong to the former. The young lovers are doomed not because their characteristic mistakes or misfortunes, but because of the type they represent: the underdog and the young woman, the cog and the grease in the giant patriotic apparatus. Rahim and his family live in a far-flung, ramshackle area, from which if you go any further away, you will hit the mountains. It is the end of the world! They are condemned for life to dance to the tune of the overdog. The main pillars that have upheld this broken cycle for too long are Religion, Tradition, and Government, whose roles in the film are respectively assigned to the Prison, the Bazaar, and the Police chief. The constant playing of the Quran and prayers from the loudspeakers in the prison enriches this association, and the same could be said about the traditional music played in the bazaar. The two youngsters are in love, of which we only see the result, not the journey. Their strong bond is a symbolic one; they are natural allies who are up against the same oppressive forces. One’s smallest step forward is the other’s victory too. And this is what justifies all the sacrifice and selflessness, especially from the side of the young woman, who is much more desperate in her long but fruitless endeavours to get what is rightfully hers in the first place!
Farhadi’s frames, as always, are consistently dirty, crowded and chaotic. A clean shot in his films is as rare as a genuinely happy character! The ever wandering Steadicam adds more tension to the mix. There is no refuge from the prying eyes and ears of The Others. The hero is swarmed by interfering and conflicting agents and elements. Being an artist, Rahim’s craft is creating beauty, but he is engulfed by misery and ugliness wherever he goes, or to be said more accurately, wherever he is allowed to go! Privacy and personal space are luxuries that Farhadi’s characters cannot afford. They don’t even have a place to live on their own. Their livelihood, their freedom and even their very existence are all on a lease.
Farhadi’s narrative in A Hero is a step up even from his best works. His genius lies in making use of his reputation, and manipulating the viewer’s expectation to advance his narrative; Farhadi is known for “big” revelations and sharp, yet plausible twists. As a general rule, every sentence in a script and each element in a narrative should serve one of two purposes: advancing the plot, or introducing the character. This holds true for this film too, but with a major deviation; the information relayed to the viewers through successive scenes are arranged in a way to conjure an image in the viewer’s mind, which is a perceived illusion of a presumed “truth”. This image is being formed by the help of the audience’s expectation from the filmmaker: the truth will be revealed in the end. This notion makes the viewer an accomplice in what becomes of the hero. The case against Rahim is ill-founded, and no conclusive evidence is ever provided. The mysterious woman would have all the right to disappear if we were to believe what she said in our short encounter. But we won’t, will we?! We go along with the mass conspiracy, because we expect Rahim to be guilty in some way. In our vain expectation of the big revelation, we wait and watch until we see the curtain is dropping and we are escorting Rahim and Farkhondeh back into their prisons, each their own.
Avoiding violence in settling human conflicts is a modern virtue. Undemocratic and suppressive regimes not only allow violence in line with their outlook and ideologies, but even glorify it. They reject modern values, but they invoke them nonetheless if it suits them. The rule of law always applies, when the perpetrator is of low social status. The wardens of the prison are icons of deceit and persecution. Only a week before, a prisoner hanged himself under their supervision. They easily manage to shrug that off, but what really upsets them is Rahim slamming the door. Now is the time to exert the law and order! The little guy was born to obey, forced to run all his modest life in a rat race with his fellows so that in the end, it could be decided which one is to be executed and which to be incarcerated! And it takes one’s sacrifice to save another from the gallows, like soldiers on the front line. They are condemned not because what they did, but because who they are. And Rahim knows all this when he vehemently fights to have the video of his son, begging for mercy, erased. He refuses to have another shot at redemption at the cost of perpetuating this misery into another generation. He is adamant to spare his offspring the humiliation he’s gone through, and he knows there is yet more to come.
A Hero is a fine work of art both in form and content. It also manifests Farhadi’s deep insight into a society hanging between tradition and modernity for over a century. It is plagued by corruption, dishonesty and hypocrisy. In this muddy water, no one’s account could be sold as “the truth”. There is a famous saying in Persian that says “hear the truth from the child.” But the child in Farhadi’s story is incapacitated by a terrible stutter. The truth is handicapped and incomprehensible!