Analysis: Deconstructing When and Where the Truth Lies — Truth and Agency in Asghar Farhadi’s ‘A Hero’6 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
When it comes to conversations about the nature of truth and its moral corollaries, few Iranian auteurs have parallelled Asghar Farhadi’s trenchant portraits. Farhadi’s newest feature film, A Hero, exemplifies his sleight of hand at dismantling the fallible human subjectivities between complex familial relationships and at broaching the perpetual question of power and agency in his character’s social scaffolding.
Rahim Soltani (Amir Jadidi), the film’s central moral compass, is unsuspectingly thrust into the limelight when he returns a bag of gold coins to its owner. The valorisation of his gallant deed by the mainstream media carries Rahim from camera to camera, often stringing along his stuttering son to buttress his fable.
His achievement seems to impose on him a new identity — the new moral torchbearer of the neighbourhood — which Rahim must incarnate. When found lighting a cigarette in the kitchen, his sister, Malileh (Maryam Shahdaie) comments that smoking would tarnish his mild-mannered persona if whiffed by the media. In that sense, A Hero is less a charge for distorting the truth than an indictment of the powerlessness of an individual against media gluttony.
Materialized in Farhadi’s film as the prison officials, a fund-raising organisation and the Iranian mass media, these institutional entities practice a form of power (defined by its cultural rather than linguistic manifestation propagated by Michel Foucault) that coheres Rahim to a given identity, seeking to define and impose a politically functional identity to perpetuate their own dominance. Indeed, the prison management eagerly upholds Rahim for the media’s exaltation to conceal an inmate’s suicide; the charity capitalises upon Rahim’s media presence to raise awareness for its own survival; the state media pushes another ‘good citizen’ parable to bolster public opinion.
Foucault notes in his 1982 paper The Subject and Power:
“This form of power applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects.”
In other words, the Iranian media, prison officials and charity organizations have bound Rahim to a specific character, writing it to his social body such that it is reproduced wherever he goes; be it on a glass plaque or his face on the television. As such, the denomination of a ‘hero’ is informed by institutions seeking to deploy a mode of address that embodies the benevolent values of their own making (the prison, the charity, the media) rather than the individual’s (Rahim).
Farhadi points out in an interview with Slant Magazine, “When we hear the word ‘hero’, we’re thinking about a character who always makes their own decisions […] But in real life, it’s not like that at all. Especially these days, they’re heroes for a small amount of time and then descend very fast. We have a hero in our film where nobody wants to be in his place because he’s not a character that makes his own decisions.”
Indeed, the exaltation of an act as simple as returning a bag of gold have been viciously questioned by other characters, most notably Rahim’s creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), and a job recruiter who seems swayed by Rahim’s detractors on social media. “He’s been bullshitting people all his life,” says Bahram. “Now, he’s a hero?” As tiny fibs that Rahim has chosen to omit are revealed, the seeds of doubt begin to blossom. Here, Rahim is once again designated a straitjacket orchestrated by the media — one that is diametrically opposed to the virtues of a hero: a liar.
The prison refuses to grant him an extended furlough to be with his family, the charity revokes their recognition of his deed and social media roars at the video of his outburst. His demeanour changes as desperation to clear his name mounts and we catch a glimpse of what lay beneath his sycophantic smiles.
Towards the end of the film, Rahim is confronted with divisions within himself: the desperation to redeem his heroic guise careens directly with his genuine intentions to protect his son. For the first time since the beginning of the film, Rahim resists. He refuses the exploitation of his son for the media to churn into another sob story. He engages in a scuffle with the prison official, demanding the video of his son to be deleted. In such a contest, Rahim put the restrictive “white-hat” rhetoric mobilised by the media to an end and ironically, in his own manner, emerged as a true hero.
To be sure, Farhadi is less invested in a film’s resolution than its contradictions. For anyone who has seen Farhadi’s oeuvre [notably A Separation (2011), The Salesman (2016), About Elly (2009), Beautiful City (2004), The Past (2013) and Fireworks Wednesday (2006)], it is evident that the auteur has a penchant towards depicting endeavours of people mired in social and political adversities where morality, honour and truth are caught at a crossfire. Motives and crucial decisions are often tangled in a moral cobweb stranded in unresolved dilemmas and quandaries.
In an interview with scholar Tina Hassannia, Farhadi emphasises the ambiguous nature of his characters: “I don’t remember ever having characters in my films that are completely negative or to be blamed for the bad elements in the film.”
Employing the same open-ended, naturalistic approach to shooting his films as his cinematic forebears, Farhadi foregrounds the physical performances elicited by his actors. The director’s dedication to realism is evident in the closing sequence — from where the camera lay motionless, we see the chink of daylight in the background and its peripheral movements of normalcy. The foreground is still in sharp focus: a guard goes about his pedestrian duties as a bus pulls over. None of these details in the long shot adds significant value to the plot. Instead, it creates the cinematic value famously favoured by André Bazin as a means of curating realism.
If A Separation is Farhadi’s screenwriting at his best, then A Hero is Farhadi’s most balanced feature — the coagulation of an astute screenplay and ingenious cinema.
A Hero is now showing in Oldham Theaters from 21 January to 26 February 2022. Grab your tickets to two upcoming screenings on Sunday, 6 February 2022 and Wednesday, 9 February 2022 from the Asian Film Archive.