‘A Hero’ Review: Debts No Honest Man Can Pay

“The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” “A Hero,” the new film by the Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, seems to circle around these lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral,” spinning Eliot’s observation about morality into a squall of questions about ethics and motives.

At the center of the movie is what looks like an unambiguous act of decency. A man — the title character, a sign painter named Rahim Soltani (Amir Jadidi) — arranges for the return of 17 gold coins to their rightful owner. What could be wrong with that? What could go wrong as a consequence?

Quite a lot, as it happens. Nothing in this stressful, intricately plotted fable of modern life is as simple as we or the characters might wish. Rahim, who has been imprisoned because of a debt, wants to clear the books and restart his life. We meet him at the beginning of a hectic two-day furlough, as he bounces from one encounter to another, hoping to secure his freedom by settling with his creditor, Hossein (Ali Reza Jahandideh), a print-shop owner who is the brother-in-law of Rahim’s former wife.

The entwining of family ties and business relations is a central fact of Iranian life as Farhadi understands it. When love, honor and loyalty are at issue, money is never far away. To paraphrase Homer Simpson on the subject of alcohol, it’s the cause of and the solution to most of life’s problems.

Rahim’s ex, who remains unseen, is preparing to remarry, and Rahim hopes to do the same. Their son, Siavash (Saleh Karimai), who has a severe speech impediment, lives with Rahim’s sister Malileh (Maryam Shahdaie) and her husband, Bahram, who are Rahim’s main allies. His girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldoust), is the one who found the gold coins, and the couple’s initial plan is to sell them to pay off enough of the debt to satisfy Hossein.

Plan B — finding the rightful owner — is Rahim’s idea, and whether it’s an impulsive, impatient act of conscience or something more calculated is a source of much complication and suspense. What feels like a Hollywood ending arrives in the middle of the movie, as Rahim’s selflessness is rewarded with exactly what he has given up.

The return of the coins becomes a news story and a social media sensation, the kind of feel-good episode that nobody can resist. The prison authorities are happy to exploit Rahim’s heroism for their own purposes, as is a charitable foundation that presents him with a plaque and the promise of a job. Donations flow in, and pressure grows on Hossein to let bygones be bygones.

Why wouldn’t he? Rahim is tall and handsome, with an eager smile and an ingratiating manner. But Hossein isn’t alone in resisting his charm. A fellow inmate sneeringly compliments Rahim on his skill at fooling everyone. Farkhondeh’s grumpy brother thinks he’s a loser. A potential employer insists on pulling at loose threads in the story of the coins, demanding proof of every detail and treating what look like minor fibs as evidence of a larger fraud.

Are they? The more time you spend with Rahim, the more you wonder if the skeptics — who at first seem bureaucratic, coldhearted or vindictive — might have a point. Do his occasional outbursts bespeak a violent temperament? Does his hangdog demeanor cover up an essential dishonesty? Or is he just, as he claims to be, a good guy who can’t seem to catch a break?

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In a sense, these questions — the question of whose side you should be on — are misdirected. Farhadi is less interested in the essence of who people are than in the causes and results of what they do. The winner of two Oscars (for “A Separation” in 2012 and “A Salesman” five years later), he makes films with the discipline and insight of a first-rate novelist. “A Hero” is as anxious and swift as a thriller, with the density and observational acuity of a 19th-century three-decker.

Even incidental characters are vivid and complicated, and in every household, office and storefront you’re aware of the impinging presence of untold stories. (You are also, not incidentally, in the presence of an absolutely first-rate ensemble of actors.) Late in the film, a woman shows up, accompanied by her young daughter, at the offices of the foundation whose reputation Rahim has burnished and then tarnished. She is pleading with the director for help in saving her husband from execution, and in a few scenes we become aware of how many other movies are implied by and enfolded within this one. What’s Farkhondeh’s story? What about Hossein’s daughter, who carries the deepest grudge against Rahim? And what about Rahim himself, as husband and father?

The questions keep going, and by the time the narrative reaches its (bittersweet, satisfying) conclusion, you may decide that the narrative wasn’t really the point. Early in the film, Rahim visits Bahram at his workplace, an ancient necropolis carved into the side of a cliff. It’s covered in scaffolding, which is something of a metaphor for the plot of this ingenious and engrossing movie — a series of ladders and passageways that both cover and grant access to mysteries of life and death.

A Hero
Rated PG-13. Anger and deceit. In Persian, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes. In theaters.

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