A Hero Is A Gripping Study Of Altruism In The Age Of The Social Media Star

In the age of viral content, the film asks, what separates an action motivated by personal honour from one prompted by having to live up to one's curated public image?
A Hero Is A Gripping Study Of Altruism In The Age Of The Social Media Star

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Writer: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabandeh, Sahar Goldust, Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy, Sarina Farhadi
Ali Ghazi, Arash Ramezani
Hayedeh Safiyari

At the beginning of A Hero, protagonist Rahim Soltani (Amir Jadidi) makes the long climb up the scaffolding set up against the imposing monument of the Tomb of Xerxes, sweaty and out of breath when he finally reaches the top, only for his brother-in-law (Alireza Jahandideh) to suggest they head right back down for some tea. In a few short minutes, writer-director Asghar Farhadi foreshadows Rahim's trajectory over the course of the film — a dizzying propulsion to the top, followed by a swift, brutal fall from social media grace that he must then learn how to navigate. In the age of viral content, the film asks, what separates an action motivated by personal honour from one prompted by having to live up to one's curated public image? More importantly, what happens when the two concepts become inextricably tangled?

All of Farhadi's movies unravel as thrillers in the guise of social dramas, spinning tension out of everyday conversations that reveal as much about the central tragic plots as they do about the people tied together by them. A Hero is no different, crafting its character studies to illustrate a society in which good deeds are heralded instead of normalised, rendering the idea of altruism questionable. This time around, however, the director's piercing gaze is balanced out by a cheeky sense of humour, as if in acknowledgement of how farcical life itself often is. That an Iranian court recently indicted Farhadi for plagiarising the premise of this film from a documentary shot by one of his former students lends the tale a shocking, retroactively ironic air, given its staunch moral compass, and dilutes its nuanced understanding of the thin line dividing the right act performed for the wrong reasons and vice versa. 

Early on in the film, Rahim, on two days' leave from a debtor's prison, decides to return the bag of gold coins his girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust) found, instead of using them to pay part of the debt he owes to his former brother-in-law Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh). His story contains all the ingredients for viral internet success — think of it like one of those Facebook videos which positions the idea of children setting up a lemonade stand to pay for their parent's surgery as a heartwarming gesture, instead of an indictment of a failed healthcare system. Coverage of Rahim's actions bring him social media fame and opportunities he couldn't have dreamed of earlier, but when the strands of his knotty tale begin unraveling under further scrutiny, he's forced to consider the lengths he'd go to clear his name. 

Farhadi's empathetic gaze renders his characters deserving of kindness no matter what errors of judgement they might make, while the real villains emerge as the institutions that co-opt these stories to further an agenda. The prison industrial complex uses the image of a model inmate to detract from its more unsavoury practices, while television channels tweak Rahim's story for maximum dramatic impact to generate viewership. Bahram becomes an example of the viciousness of the news cycle and the way it capitalises on short-lived attention spans. While his earlier offer of a loan makes him a saviour in the narrative of Rahim's life, his expectation that it be repaid recasts him as the villain in the curated social media version of it. This clear-cut dichotomy contrasts with Farhadi's style of filmmaking, in which the inherent contradictions of any of his characters mean that no one is either completely good or bad.

Rahim is often filmed looking at people through partitions or doorways and as the film progresses, his barriers to honest communication only increase. Given that a camera lens changes the course of his life, recurring shots of him framed behind glass only add to doubt over whether his selflessness has been a performance from the start. Jadidi plays him with perpetually stooped shoulders and an affable charm that goes a long way in explaining why he's afforded so many chances despite all the evidence to the contrary. On some level, the same mechanisms that make his story so popular and garner him societal goodwill also work on the audience, which is sure to root for him to get away with the ruse.

The movie ends, as all Farhadi movies do, with a sting in the tale but not before a brief flicker of hope. Rahim, disgraced in society, refuses to participate in the one scheme that would help him regain his lost status, but ultimately embarrass his young son (Saleh Karimaei). The film's title, which has so far felt suffixed by a question mark — A Hero? — becomes a fitting moniker for a man who has since wised up to the illusory nature of stardom. He finally lives up to the movie's name, if only for the one person in his life who needs him to.

A Hero is playing in theaters now.

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