Original title: Ghahreman | Written and Directed by Asghar Farhadi | 127 min | Amazon Prime | ▲▲▲▲△
Rahim Soltani (Amir Jadidi) is a painter and calligrapher in debtors prison in the Iranian city of Shiraz, famed as the site of the ancient city of Persepolis — Soltani’s brother-in-law works helping maintain the ruins. While out on a two-day break, Soltani’s secret girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahir Goldoust), finds a handbag full of gold coins at a bus stop.
Soltani’s first thought is to pawn them to pay back his hard-as-nails creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), but Soltani has a change of heart and puts up flyers to try and track down the bag’s owner. When he does word gets out about his selfless deed. He’s interviewed on television, and becomes something of a cause célèbre.
Everyone around him, even his jailer, has Soltani’s back while his rising reputation benefits them and him. A local charity takes up his cause, raising money to help him get out of prison. But Bahram, the creditor, is intractable, saying Soltani has no honour and doesn’t deserve the acclaim for just doing his duty as a citizen.
Once again in a Farhadi, the events in the first act of the movie set up an ethical scenario that gets reexamined again and again in the moments, minutes, and scenes following. Layers of narrative are stacked with deliberate, dense storytelling. His films are procedurals, with character notes the puzzles pieces arranged as he goes along.
It’s not simple enough to say the narrative reveals things about Soltani that changes our impression of who he is. What’s truer, and more important than that, is how his desperation makes everyone around him co-conspirators, colluding in his efforts to clear his name and then painted by the same brush of shame when his mistakes are compounded by bad decisions.
The indictments here are multifold — the film seems to be saying everyone here needs to take some accountability for what transpires, not least of all Soltani, but as he attempts to exert some kind of control over the swirling consequences of his mistakes, it all only gets worse. A Hero challenges us both to sympathize with his lot and asks us what we’d do in his stead.
The film’s deepest criticism is reserved for a system that punishes those who reach for something better in their lives, then trapping them when things don’t go their way.
Jadidi does a terrific job with Soltani, someone slightly naive, a step behind understanding where his decisions will lead. He gets plenty of support from actors and non-actors alike, with a special nod to Maryam Shahdaei as Soltani’s sister and Alireza Jahandideh as his brother in law, doing their best to stand by him no matter what.
In places I found the picture a challenge to follow, which may be due to the way Farhadi parcels out information. It could be that details of character motivation are muddied by my not having a more full understanding of the nuances of Iranian culture. I also wasn’t sure I fully grasped the way the picture illustrates Soltani’s relationship with his son.
All that said, it’s a fascinating piece. It’s another window from Farhadi into a society that, from where we live, seems otherwise so opaque.