- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2012

TEHRAN, IRAN (AP) - Iran trumpeted the Islamic Republic’s first foreign film Oscar win Monday as a triumph over archfoe Israel _ even as audiences in Israel packed theaters to watch the movie that beat their country’s entry at the Academy Awards.

The groundbreaking success of “A Separation,” which tells the story of a failing marriage, was cast mostly in nationalist terms by Iranian authorities amid a mounting showdown between Israel and its Western allies over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program.

Yet the high-profile attention by Iran’s Islamic leadership also represents a rare stamp of approval on the country’s movie industry, which collects awards and accolades worldwide but is often dismissed by hard-liners at home as dominated by Western-tainted liberals and political dissenters.

The Israeli film “Footnote” was in the competition against director Asghar Farhadi’s movie, which explores troubles in Iranian society through the story of a marriage in collapse. Many Iranian hard-liners objected to the themes of domestic turmoil, gender inequality and the desire by many Iranians to leave the country.

But Farhadi, in his acceptance speech in Los Angeles, said he hoped the Oscar would raise awareness of Iran’s artistic achievements and rich culture that has been “hidden under the heavy dust of politics.”

Iranian cinema has reaped praise and prizes at international festivals such as Venice and Cannes for decades _ as part of an artistic tradition among Iranians that includes poetry, music and artwork that now command some of the highest prices in galleries in Dubai and elsewhere.

The government, while it highlights sporting achievements and technological leaps as a source of national pride, has often been dismissive of international cultural and entertainment awards.

Clampdowns by hard-liners in recent years _ particularly since the unrest after the disputed 2009 presidential elections _ have included artists and others, forcing some to flee the country or work underground. In January, a well-known independent film group in Tehran was ordered closed.

But Iranian state media used the Oscar-winning film to trumpet a success over Israel. The state TV broadcast said the award succeeded in “leaving behind” a film from the “Zionist regime,” the phrase often used in Iran to describe Israel.

Israel has not ruled out military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, which the West fears could be used to develop weapons. Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes like energy production and cancer treatment.

Javad Shamaghdari, head of Iran’s Cinematic Agency, portrayed the Oscar decision as the “beginning of the collapse” of Israeli influence that “beats the drum of war” in the U.S.

In Israel, however, the film has been a hit despite the daily headlines in Israeli newspapers warning of the Iranian nuclear threat.

“It’s very well acted, exceptionally well written and very moving,” said Yair Raveh, film critic for Israel’s leading entertainment magazine, Pnai Plus. “Ultimately you don’t think about nuclear bombs or dictators threatening world peace. You see them driving cars and going to movies and they look exactly like us.”

The local favorite was still Israel’s Oscar contender, Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote,” a Talmudic scholar saga. But their interest in “A Separation” was piqued by the rare glimpse it offered into the living rooms of a country they regard as a threat to their very survival.

After a Sunday screening in Jerusalem, Rina Brick, 70, said she was surprised by the humaneness of the Iranian bureaucrats portrayed in the film. “Our image of how Iran works is less democratic than we see here,” she said. “The judge, the police, everyone behaves as if they are in a Western country.”

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