Twice an Oscar winner, for “A Separation” and “The Salesman,” Iranian director Asghar Farhadi must be a front-runner to add the Palme d’Or to his glittering collection after his latest film, “A Hero,” premiered in the Cannes competition on Tuesday.
Indeed, gold is what it’s all about, the plot and premise turning on that filmic staple of a bag of treasure -- in this case, 17 gold coins found in a handbag at a bus stop in the city of Shiraz.
The coins come into the possession of a man, Rahim Soltani (Amir Jadidi), who is out on a few days release from debtor’s prison. He sees the money as a sure-fire way of paying off his debts, getting out of jail and beginning a new life with his girlfriend Farkondeh, in whose custody to coins appear to be.
However, when the pair excitedly visit a gold dealer, they find the treasure isn’t as valuable as they’d hoped. Rahim comes up with another plan, sticking up notices around the neighborhood for the lost bag and hoping for some kind of reward, in both reputation and a bit of cash.
The ex-prisoner’s selfless act is soon the talk of the neighborhood. He’s on the TV and in the newspapers and -- apparently -- on social media, although rather strangely Farhadi rarely shows us any mobile phones or computers, even if Rahim’s poor, stammering son Saivash is constantly on a tablet.
Quickly, however, the simple plan starts to get very complicated. Fissures appear in the rock face of the story, like the ancient ruins of Persepolis which feature so dramatically in the film’s opening shots. Who really found the bag? Who is the woman who claims it? Why were the prison authorities so quick to acclaim their reformed star inmate? Why won’t Rahim’s creditor, the grumpy Bahram, give a guy a break?
The throat tightens as we watch Rahim wrap himself deeper in his own machinations. As played by Jadidi, he looks like an innocent man with an optimistic smile, yet he’s also simmering beneath with a desperation and an eye for deception. It’s not even clear if he deserves our sympathy at all. A little exaggeration goes a long way here and suddenly we are seeking truth and moral rectitude in a society that seems very quick to defend its own honor and a town holding out for a hero, a role which frankly Rahim isn’t up to.
It gets worse when a parole board member who might find Rahim some work after prison is tasked with verifying the story. All the characters end up tying themselves in knots of dilemma -- even the well-intentioned charity commissioners who’ve grabbed for the publicity and now risk tarnishing their images.
“A Hero” may well be the most likely winner to play in this year’s selection thus far in Cannes. Shot with precision, written with elegance and unfolding at a thriller-like pace, “A Hero” should perform very well around the world after this bow.
Farhadi is on far firmer ground here than with his last Cannes entry, the Spanish-set 2018 family feud drama “Everybody Knows.” There are definite echoes of his best work, particularly as “A Hero” remains in the secular realm. It depicts households, bickering families having delicious-looking spreads, busy offices, Saivash’s speech therapy school (where it turns out Rahim’s girlfriend also works as a teacher) and a bustling indoor bazaar that becomes the location for a great scuffle scene.
The film leaves many of its questions dangling -- a second viewing might clear up some of them, such as what’s happened to Rahim’s first wife and where these corrupting coins really came from in the first place, and indeed, where they’ve now gone. But that seems to be the point. You might think the put-upon little Saivash could hold the key, unable to utter the answer in a world of one person’s word against another’s.
But Farhadi doesn’t give things away that easily, and nor does the enigmatic face of his protagonist.