With a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film won and an Oscar nomination in the offing, “A Separation,” is poised to be the first Iranian film to gain a substantial U.S. audience. Ever since its unprecedented win of the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival last February, the film — the fifth feature from director Asghar Farhadi — has been winning plaudits from festival judges and critics around the world. It’s an astounding film on many levels, but many American moviegoers might be astonished simply to learn that there is a corps of world-class filmmakers at work in a country that is ruled by a repressive and murderous regime.
To call the relationship between the Iranian film industry and the government uneasy is an understatement. Director Jafar Panahi was imprisoned by the regime without charge for several months in 2010 and subsequently was banned from making movies for 20 years. Mr. Farhadi, a friend and supporter of Mr Panahi’s, has enjoyed more success in getting past the censors to permit domestic distribution of his films.
On a press tour, Mr. Farhadi told Time Out: London: “Iranian filmmakers are not passive. They fight whenever they can, as creative expression means a lot to them. The restrictions and censorship in Iran are a bit like the British weather: one day it’s sunny, the next day it’s raining. You just have to hope you walk out into the sunshine.”
To build on Mr. Farhadi’s metaphor, the weather in Tehran appears to be darkening. For example, Iran’s House of Cinema, the national filmmakers guild, was shuttered recently by the regime — a move Mr. Farhadi protested in a letter to the reformist newspaper Shargh.
One does not have to look too hard to find evidence that the regime is less than thrilled by the success of “A Separation.” The Culture Ministry has permitted no more than a trickle of grudging acknowledgments of festival awards for “A Separation” in official news releases. Perhaps the censors are even more upset by the film’s record-breaking domestic box office than by international acclaim.
The critic Godfrey Cheshire, an early champion of Iranian film in the American press, astutely notes in a Film Comment profile of Mr. Farhadi that the director has an appreciation for cinema that is “rooted in Iranian social reality.” From the standpoint of an Iranian censor, there would seem to be much that is objectionable in “A Separation.”
Viewed in allegorical terms, “A Separation” can be read as portraying the regime as a demented, confused old man whose continued survival places a wearisome burden on its citizens. On the surface, though, “A Separation” appears less seditious. In its slow-burning, intimate portrait of a marriage in free-fall, small deceptions escalate into big lies, and big lies shatter people’s lives.
Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are an educated, well-to-do couple in Tehran. We meet them as they’re before a judge, discussing the problems that led Simin to seek a divorce. She has obtained an exit visa and wants the couple to move abroad with their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarin Farhadi). The visa is only good for 40 more days, but Nader does not want to go. He’s obligated to take care of his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Unable to come to terms, they separate, and Nader is forced to hire Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to assist with his father’s care.
This move touches off a sequence of events that puts the family’s future in jeopardy and threatens to turn the temporary separation into an unbridgeable rift. Razieh is uncomfortable being left alone with a man in an apartment, even one who is senile and incapacitated. In one telling scene, she consults a religious authority on her cellphone before being assured that she is permitted to help him change his pants after an accident.
She quits and urges Nader to hire her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), with the understanding that no one mention that Razieh ever took the job on her own. This seems to provide a solution, but Hodjat, a hotheaded, self-righteous and uneducated man who is out of work after 10 years as a cobbler’s apprentice, sends his wife in his stead. One day, Nader comes home to find his father tied to the bed, barely conscious, with Razieh nowhere to be found. When she returns, he fires her, accuses her of stealing and pushes her out the door. Later, Razieh loses her pregnancy and brings charges against Nader, saying his manhandling led to her miscarriage.
Nader is as sophisticated as Hodjat is unpolished. He has a good job, an apartment full of books, and he takes an interest in the details of Termeh’s education, to the point of correcting her teacher’s use of an Arabic word instead of a Persian one in a piece of a translation in a homework assignment. When Termeh protests that the teacher will mark her down for this, Nader uses the situation as an occasion to proclaim that right is right, no matter what any authority says. When he’s faced with Razieh’s charges, he defends himself and is resentful of Simin and his daughter’s questioning of his innocence.
Termeh is the moral fulcrum of “A Separation.” She’s observant, melancholy and precociously intelligent. Nader styles himself as the master of his family, but he delegates all the important decisions to Termeh — a role she accepts with just a hint of reluctance. As Nader’s case wends through Iran’s legal system, in which civil and criminal responsibility are decided by a single judge, he looks to Termeh as his ally against the suspicions of his wife and the bitter class resentment of Hodjat and Razieh.
Mr. Farhadi is a master of perspective, using a hand-held camera in a way that subtly conceals and then confers key bits of information. The shifting point of view allocates sympathies among the various characters and allows viewers — even non-Iranian audiences — to understand how the characters see each other.
Exquisitely wrought, moving and understated, “A Separation” is made up of small moments that are distillations of powerful social forces. “A Separation” manages to show a society that is torn apart by class distinctions, where religion is used as a cudgel and it is taken for granted that a woman of privilege might want to emigrate to give her daughter a better life. It is a deeply brave and moving film.
TITLE: “A Separation”
CREDITS: Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi
RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS