In movies like “A Separation,” “The Past,” and “The Salesman,” the Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has demonstrated a unique ability to take “ordinary” human situations, usually on the domestic front, and play them out in a way that is so minutely authentic yet suspenseful that they give you the sensation that life itself, if observed closely enough, is a kind of thriller. “A Hero,” Farhadi’s latest film (it’s his fourth to premiere at Cannes), very much wants to be a drama of that ilk. Its story of an achingly modest and desperate man who becomes, all too fleetingly, a much discussed figure on television and social media is a story that one could easily imagine being set within the bubbling maelstrom of our own frenetic image culture.
Rahim, the central character, is serving time for an unpaid debt and has been given a two-day leave from prison, during which he launches a plan to salvage his situation. Amir Jadidi, the actor who plays him, is handsome in a placid, at times nearly frozen way. He resembles the young Armand Assante, and when he smiles it’s with a warmth that beckons those around him. Yet there’s a passivity to Rahim that bespeaks his clenched inner fear. As we learn, he’s a man who is quietly drowning.
To start a business, he borrowed money from a loan shark, who was then paid off by Braham (Mohsen Tanabandeh), Rahim’s dyspeptic creditor, who has now put him in jail. Rahim owes him 150,000 tomans, and not because he’s a deadbeat; his partner ran off with the money. Yet he needs to find a way to squelch the debt, and when Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), who Rahim has been secretly seeing, finds a lost handbag with 17 gold coins in it, that seems to be the way out.
But gold prices have fallen (at least during the two days he’s out of jail), so Rahim launches a more ambitious — and ambiguous — plan. He puts up fliers with his phone number to attempt to locate the person who lost the gold. A woman shows up, in tears, claiming it’s her money, and Rahim (working through his sister) returns the gold. He is then invited on TV to explain what happened: that he badly needed those coins to pay off a debt, and still, he gave the coins back. He becomes a living, breathing media parable of Iranian altruism.
“A Hero,” which is set in the city of Shiraz, suggests that contemporary Iran feeds on these stories; they are ritualized demonstrations to the people of how good they are. Rahim, who is the single father of a son who stutters, is presented to the audience as a quietly tormented figure of humane mixed motives. He knew that he should give the money back, and did (he thought the karma of it might burn him if he didn’t), but he’s also trying to play his good deed to his advantage, for reasons that are more than reasonable. He’s throwing himself a life preserver. Does it work? Let’s just say that no good deed goes unpunished.
Farhadi stages highly effective scenes, showing what happens in a society that elevates ordinary people into “heroes” but, as a result, doesn’t trust the stories it’s telling itself. Rahim is honored at a public ceremony by a charity foundation, where they pass a collection plate for him; for a moment, he’s the poster boy. But he still doesn’t have enough money to pay Braham back, and the bald, bearded, scowling Braham, who strikes us as a Scrooge/Mr. Potter figure, is revealed to have a story behind his own sternness.
As a result of the money he gave Rahim, he lost the dowry for his daughter (Sarina Farhadi), with whom he runs an art store at a shopping center. All he wants is what he’s owed, and when he questions the machinery of public-image creation that has elevated Rahim, saying that people shouldn’t be lionized simply for doing the right thing, he kind of has a point. Rahim, let out of jail a second time, attempts to land employment, and when a squirrelly young council intelligence officer senses that there’s something fishy about his gold-coin story, he investigates it with the doggedness of a state cop. The woman who had claimed the money has now disappeared, and Rahim arranges for Farkhondeh to pretend to be her — a white lie, perhaps, but one that’s destined to blow up in his face.
There are further complications, as each new scene cooks up something to say about a society torn between a rigidly self-imposed morality and an economically ravaged reality. Yet “A Hero,” in the end, is a rather diffuse movie: top-heavy with “insights” yet somewhat vague and detached as the saga of an ordinary man out to save himself. The film is two hours and 7 minutes long, and its structure is repetitive more than it is developmental.
After Rahim erupts in the shopping center and physically attacks Braham, social media comes into play. A video of the attack makes Rahim look like a hypocrite — and Braham’s vengeance, too, will be played out on social media. Will Rahim himself fight back by using social media as a weapon? Saleh Karimai, the young actor who plays his son, has a doleful and vivid presence, yet late in the film, when Rahim is placed in the position of exploiting his son’s stutter, the scene should be the wrenching culmination of everything we’ve been watching — and instead it plays as one more well-meaning, emotionally staid decision. “A Hero,” for all that’s good in it, is a Farhadi movie that speaks to our heads (and sometimes has us scratching them) more than it does our hearts.