In Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero, calligrapher and painter Rahim Soltani (Amir Judadi) is released from debt prison for two days. His mission is to pay off part of the debt by selling 17 gold coins that his girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust) has found.

Rahim hopes that his creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), who sent him to prison, will accept the remaining amount in cheques so that he can get out of jail. When he doesn’t get a good enough price for the gold, a guilt-stricken Rahim decides to return the precious metal to its rightful owner.

Rahim’s honesty despite his own dire situation – he has a speech-impaired son, Siavash (Saleh Karimaei) – is covered by the media, making him a minor celebrity. He is offered an administrative job in the city council, and a local charity comes forward to help him repay his debt. Rahim is even granted special leave from prison. However, a well-intended white lie backfires on Rahim, laying his well-laid plans to waste.

As with other films by Farhadi, including About Elly, A Separation and The Salesman, A Hero never veers into black or white territory. Each of the characters is complex, with both decency and flaws, problems and differing motivations. What begins as an honest deed for Rahim soon turns Kafkaesque – every time he tries to get things back on track, things go wrong.

Rahim is not above emotional and ethical manipulation himself, using his stuttering son as a means of gaining sympathy, for instance. Yet, Farhadi’s screenplay ensures that we empathise with Rahim and his humiliation.

A Hero was widely acclaimed upon its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021, where it won the Grand Prix award. The film’s reputation suffered a few knocks after Farhadi’s former student, Azadeh Masihzadeh, accused him of plagiarising her documentary All Winners, All Losers.

Made in 2018 for a documentary workshop conducted by Farhadi, Masihzadeh’s film is about Mohammed Reza Shokri, who was similarly arrested for failing to repay a debt. Mohammed too found a purse full of money and tried to find its owner.

Farhadi has contested the plagiarism allegation, claiming that he did his own independent research on the real-life incident that inspired Masihzadeh’s documentary. All Winners, All Losers is available on YouTube.

Whatever the merits of the case, A Hero sees Farhadi in fine form. Few filmmakers can quietly capture layers of ambiguity and moral complexity in a context that is at once specific and universal. The fine performances by the cast, especially Amir Judadi as Rahim, are among the big pluses of an astute and thought-provoking film that explores a cynical world driven by the dictates of social media.

A Hero (2021).