★★★★☆

No good deed goes unpunished, and such is the case for Rahim (Amir Jadidi), the protagonist of Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero. Imprisoned for debt, he is on two-day leave when he meets up with his girlfriend Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust) who might just have the answer to his problems. She’s found a handbag full of gold coins and together they plan to sell them and pay off a large chunk of the sum he owes in order to secure his release.

However, after a bit of sisterly scolding and a crisis of conscience, Rahim decides instead to advertise for the owner and return the bag of coins. When the woman who lost the purse calls the prison, the authorities are so impressed with this unusual act of honesty that they immediately call the media and begin to work with a charity on raising money to have Rahim released. Initially, he basks shamefacedly in the approbation of the prison warden, the press and his family – including his own son, who looks with awe at his father.

Rahim is a man who has had everything taken for him: one marriage has failed and he feels keenly the humiliation of his position. But in an attempt to hide the participation of his girlfriend, a couple of inconsistencies in his story lead to the suspicion that the whole affair might have been some kind of invented stunt. This theory is disseminated on social media and also pushed by his ex-father-in-law, the man who also holds his loan and has the power to have him released from prison, but who cordially dislikes Rahim.

With A Hero, Farhadi has created a tragicomedy that coils around Rahim like a snake. At every turn, there seems to be some obstacle: a persnickety HR man at the council where Rahim is promised a job; a fellow prisoner who resents his success. Each fix has the unforeseen consequence of worsening the situation. And as Rahim attempts steadfastly to rescue his reputation – his much-touted “honour” – he exposes himself again and again to worse humiliation. It almost feels cruel to see how Rahim is forced into complicity with his own ruin as his possible plans of action become ever narrower; the coils tighten still.

The performances are beautifully observed. Jadidi plays Rahim with a kind of goofy charm, but at the same time he has a temper and an obstinacy that just keeps him digging deeper. He is an honest man in a dishonest world, and his punishment is somewhat logical. Rahim’s basic goodness can be seen in the love of his girlfriend and the adoration of his son, who suffers from a stutter and whose exposure to ridicule is for Rahim the last straw. Iran is a complex and bureaucratic country, but it is also the role of social media and so-called ‘fake news’ that lend A Hero a contemporary relevance, even as it feels like an ancient morality tale.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty