“How far that little candle throws his beams. So shines a good deed in a naughty world,” Portia says in The Merchant of Venice. We know by now that, in Asghar Farhadi’s films, it’s only a matter of time before well-intentioned candles are snuffed out. The Iranian is one of cinema’s reigning pessimists. He’s not a moralist in the traditional sense but someone interested in testing the limits of moral behaviour, especially when such behaviour is not to one’s advantage. More than any other director working, his films ask with uncomfortable directness: What do you think you'd do?
A Hero, which played at Cannes last year and won the Grand Prix, begins with Rahim (Amir Jadidi) starting a two-day release from prison by meeting his brother-in-law on a construction site near the statue of Xerxes. We see him slowly make his way up the scaffolding. Farhadi doesn't usually favour the long drawn-out shots you'll often see in Iranian films; his cutting is more Hitchcockian. Farhadi making us aware of his protagonist's laboured ascent is a warning: Rahim’s happy to be out of prison and may have had a secret windfall, yet this will be a difficult slog.
The windfall is a discovery his girlfriend, Malileh (Maryam Shahdaei), made while he was inside, a purse with no identification and 17 gold coins. Their plan is to sell the gold to pay off the large debt he owes Bahram, his ex-wife’s brother-in-law (he was in prison for non-payment). But somewhere along the way, Rahim’s conscience kicks in; his sister’s questions about the mysterious purse and delays at the merchant’s store seem to him divine warnings. And so, over the disappointment of Malileh, he leaves a message at the bank that he has someone’s gold coins. Soon, a distraught woman turns up and takes the bag from his sister while he’s out.
At this point the story takes a very Farhadi turn. Rahim’s good deed is publicised by the prison authorities and picked up by the local media. All of a sudden, he’s a celebrity. A charity organization hosts a fundraiser so he can pay off Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh, wonderfully sceptical). It’s going so well, and then—like so many characters in Farhadi films—Rahim, rattled by a stony HR executive, makes one error of judgment. And everything unravels.
Did Farhadi have that moment himself, when he asked his student to sign over the idea to her film to him? Azadeh Masihzadeh participated in a workshop by Farhadi in 2014-15, where she made a short documentary called All Winners, All Losers (it’s on her YouTube channel, with English subtitles). The subject was one Mohammad Reza Shokri, whose story is clearly the basis for Rahim’s. Masihzadeh said she discovered and researched the case, and was shocked when Farhadi’s film turned it into fiction, giving her no credit. She filed a complaint with the Iranian Alliance of Motion Picture Guilds, who ruled in Farhadi's favour. Farhadi sued Masihzadeh for defamation. Masihzadeh sued Farhadi for copyright infringement. This month, Farhadi lost the defamation suit. The other case has gone before a second judge.
Whatever you feel about the case—and the courts seem inclined towards Masihzadeh till now—Farhadi doesn’t come off well, possibly a plagarist, at best taking advantage of a power imbalance. But watching A Hero with some knowledge of the ongoing trial is a richer, if more conflicting, experience. The film asks what it means to be moral when reputations and livelihoods depend on you bending the truth. It’s possible to feel for Masihzadeh and to marvel at the thought of a director obsessed with moral grey areas landing himself in one: a meta-tale worthy of Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up.
Amir Jadidi plays Rahim as someone who’s self-aware enough to know that his open nature and ingratiating smile might open doors that his moral strictness has closed. We know Rahim isn’t making up the purse story but it’s nevertheless interesting to see Bahram complain that he was taken in by his innocent manner when he lent him money. Farhadi, as always, builds tragedy as an accumulative, causal thing. No single action of Rahim’s is irretrievably damaging. But placed in order, they snap together like locks.
‘A Hero’ is in theatres.