Iranian film ‘A Hero’ brings working class struggles back to the big screen
There is a heartbreaking Iranian drama called A hero Currently playing on Amazon, and it’s getting a lot of attention. It’s sure to be nominated for plenty of awards, including the Oscar for Best International Feature Film, not just on its own merits, but because highly honored screenwriter and director Asghar Farhadi has won that Oscar twice before, for A separation (2011) and Seller(2016).
A hero tells the story of a handsome and endearing young man named Rahim (Amir Jadidi), imprisoned for debt, who is released from prison on a rare two-day furlough in hopes of arranging repayment of the debt – or least enough to give his creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), reason to drop the charges against him. It’s one of the few ways to avoid serving the remainder of a ten-year prison sentence, because imprisonment for debt in Iran is apparently as irrationally a bureaucratic nightmare as it was in the 19th century England that Charles Dickens was talking about. Considering that the people most likely to be imprisoned for debt are poor, with families who can’t pay the debt either, what’s the point of locking them up?
Rahim’s only hope of satisfying his creditor is due to the miraculous luck of the woman he is involved with, the charming and devoted Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust). She found a purse lost in the street filled with seventeen gold coins.
But what might seem like a simple solution to his problem is fraught with pitfalls. The coins are worth less than Rahim and Farkhondeh thought. Creditor Bahram is also Rahim’s embittered former brother-in-law, and he is unwilling to drop the charge against him for anything less than full payment of the debt. He resents on behalf of his sister for the failure of her marriage to Rahim, and he is furious that the large sum of money he had lent was lost in Rahim’s bankruptcy, which cost his dowry to Bahram’s daughter.
With each narrative twist, these gold coins draw Rahim into ever-widening communal circles of judgment and machination that further complicate his outlook. The film has this angst Bike thieves structure, featuring an increasingly desperate protagonist running against time, going here, there and everywhere, trying to make his life work as tightly as possible, in a society seemingly built to ensure that it doesn’t never will.
The politically critical “society” part of the film is its most crucial aspect – so, of course, it’s also the aspect that is largely ignored, even in the rave reviews and flattering interviews with Farhadi, which tend to emphasize Rahim’s personal morality as the focal point of the film. (“Is he really a good man or not?”)
My favorite interview that Farhadi has done is for Deadline, in which he says the initial inspiration for A hero is Bertolt Brecht’s play Galileo’s life, because of the way it dramatizes the life of an individual struggling with social forces ruthlessly bent on his downfall. And Farhadi also indicates that, when it comes to achieving a startling level of international interest with films that seem to deal specifically with Iranian issues, he thinks in terms of Italian neorealist filmmakers, who strove to achieve an appeal similar local-global. In response to Farhadi citing such works by well-known communist writer-directors as Bike thieves‘ Vittorio De Sica, the interviewer, Pete Hammond, says:
“I would say your films aren’t overtly political at all – and I think that helps too [with their international appeal]. Does it help you in Iran? That you are not a political filmmaker, you are a humanist?
Farhadi’s response is a model of careful politeness:
“Maybe it helps that my films are . . . not very specifically from one angle – they have different angles, and I think that has helped me. But I think any film about society has to have an angle Politics. “
As we watch Rahim pushed to the brink trying to prove himself worthy, we see him evolve into increasingly desperate behaviors – lying, trying to prove his story through fraud, violently attacking his ex- recalcitrant brother-in-law. In another resemblance to Bike thieves, A hero highlights how the working poor, driven mad by systemic cruelty, will turn on each other in helpless fury.
It’s not that Farhadi isn’t interested in personal morality, of course. It’s just that he places such weight on how ordinary people with ordinary flaws are harassed and pushed by the authority structure into situations so difficult that no choice seems right for a long time.
At the beginning of the film, there is a striking scene involving a workplace in incredibly difficult conditions. As AO Scott describes:
“Rahim visits Hossein at his workplace, an ancient necropolis dug into the side of the cliff. It is covered in scaffolding, which is somewhat of a metaphor for the plot of this ingenious and engrossing film – a series of ladders and passageways that cover and provide access to the mysteries of life and death.
But before you’re struck by something as whimsical as the mysteries of life and death, it’s the difficulty and danger of this sunny construction site that fills the imagination. It seems like it takes several minutes for Rahim to climb the complex scaffolding to Hossein’s level on the steep cliff, and Hossein laughs at him for being out of shape and panting so much.
Such an ordeal informs everything that happens in A hero. As Hossein says later in the film, if his job as a laborer brought him enough money to cover Rahim’s debt, Rahim “never would have spent a day in jail”.
It’s remarkable that a movie with such a simple premise is so much more gripping than most movies coming out now. But Cesare Zavattini, the greatest screenwriter and theoretician of the Italian neorealist film movement, always maintained that an entire cinema could be founded on ordinary attempts to negotiate the existence of the working class, in all its convoluted difficulty and entanglement in the harsh social realities. From there, he asserted in his famous 1953 essay, “Some ideas about cinema”, that the potential of cinematic narratives was inexhaustible:
“A woman is going to buy a pair of shoes. On this elementary situation, it is possible to build a film. All you have to do is discover and then show all the elements that make up this adventure, in their banal “everyday life”, and it will become worthy of attention, it will even become “spectacular”. But it will become spectacular not by its exceptional qualities, but by its normal qualities; it will amaze us by showing so many things that happen every day before our eyes, things that we had never noticed before. . . .
The woman buys the shoes. . . . The shoes cost 7,000 lira. How did the woman get 7,000 lire? How hard has she worked for them, what do they mean to her? And the merchant merchant, who is he? What relationship developed between these two human beings? What do they mean, what interests do they defend by negotiating? The trader also has two sons. . .”
Zavattini deliberately chooses the purchase of shoes, the most ordinary action possible, like a peg on which to hang a story. It’s a lot less dramatic than Fahradi’s man, Rahim, on debt release, trying to buy his freedom. Yet it is remarkable how Fahradi goes about it in loops in other characters exactly as Zavattini describes it: how this attempt on Rahim’s part affects his sister, his sister’s husband and children, his creditor and his ex-brother-in-law, his creditor’s daughter who lost her dowry following Rahim’s bankruptcy, etc.
As Zavattini said, it opens up to us a reality that we share that has been rescued from seeming banality – “a vast and complex world, rich in importance and values, in its practical, social, economic and psychological grounds” . In the hands of the right filmmaker, it’s a far more compelling world, I assure you, than the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest offering.
Eileen Jones is a film critic.
This article was published on Jacobin.