The movie “A Hero,” currently streaming on Amazon Prime, has many things going for it. It effectively immerses the viewer in the foreign world of modern-day Iran that hasn’t been altogether tainted by Hollywood superficiality. As such, it is authentic and believable. It also has great performances from the actors. It also ironically has some strong female characters despite the intensely patriarchal setting.
Sure enough, it has received critical acclaim, winning Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and earning a 96 percent score among critics at Rotten Tomatoes. More than likely, it will receive some Oscar nominations for this coming Academy Awards.
On the other hand, “A Hero” also suffers from a few critical faults that prevent it from being an enjoyable film. The poor writing hampers good character and plot development. The editing is inadequate, resulting in many superfluous moments and needless repetition. Most importantly, what would have been interesting arcs and themes are left unresolved, making the whole film feel pointless.
These problems come up when one really looks at the story of “A Hero,” which focuses on Rahim, a man in his mid-30s condemned to serving time in a modern-day debtor’s prison. On a two-day leave of absence, he returns a missing bag carrying gold coins to its owner, forgoing the chance to use this money to help pay off his debt and leave prison.
When it becomes known that he returned the bag to the original owner, the prison officials want to make his story public. Soon, Rahim recites his story for a news outlet and is hailed as a hero. A charity is held in his honor, he is offered a job, and he and his family become local celebrities.
But, this sudden rise of a ne’er-do-well like Rahim draws suspicions and doubts from people who are jealous of him, particularly his creditor who put Rahim in jail in the first place. As a result, the same groups who originally celebrated him now want to interrogate him on each and every detail. The rest of the movie (which makes up the greater part of its 2-hour runtime) is basically Rahim trying to prove his story, only to find himself even more questioned and criticized.
As one can imagine, much of the story feels Kafkaesque. It’s never clear who exactly is trying to bring down Rahim, why his story merits this much attention, or if Rahim is really the man he says he is. Because these questions are never answered, many scenes (particularly in the second half of the film) seem somewhat absurd.
In contrast to these are other scenes that don’t feel absurd at all, and are quite moving. Sprinkled throughout the film are great moments that humanize and redeem the characters, even the antagonists.
There are obviously some deeper points to explore that would make for a better overall story, but instead the audience is treated to yet another discussion of specific circumstances of Rahim returning the bag to its owner. It’s as if the writers feared that veering off this rather simple arc would complicate the film too much.
Another issue is the lack of cultural context. While the intention may have been to show how similar Persian culture is to Western culture — i.e., they have divorce as well, their kids also play on screens too much, and social media puts everyone’s personal life under a microscope, etc. — the setting obviously plays a large role in this story. It also could have made the story more interesting and coherent.
For example, it could explain why Rahim’s moment of decency merited so much attention. Is this because Iran’s modern culture has deprived younger generations of their capacity for doing good for goodness’s sake? Are Iran’s institutions corrupt and held in low regard? Is social media in Iran different than in the West? As with the character motivations, none of this is explored.
Thus, while “A Hero” had the potential to be a good, if not great, drama, it is instead a bland, tedious affair that will automatically receive the benefit of the doubt because it’s an independent foreign film. On basic storytelling, it falters while on certain particulars it shines and offers something different. It clearly means to be profound and serious, but this mostly translates to being slow and simplistic.
Perhaps viewers will find that the movie stimulates some interesting conversations about the meaning of heroism and whether Rahim was noble or naive, but they will have to be patient with the movie’s missed opportunities.