Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, which just won the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film, and in 2011 picked up the Silver Bear, the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, differs somewhat from his country’s norm in that he was able to make his movie without any government funding at all. Thus he could avoid the trap of having to sneak his critiques into his film, and was also able to attack the religious character of the state more forthrightly than any filmmaker before him. He was still banned, temporarily, from making his movie after he publicly voiced support for Makhmalbaf and the imprisoned Panahi, statements for which he later apologized, perhaps only so he could get his film completed. (Interestingly, it's very likely that A Separation, Iran's submission for Academy Award recognition, will be competing against Israel's Oscar entry, Joseph Cedar's religiously themed Footnote, for the Best Foreign Language Film award next month in Hollywood.)
|Peyman Moaadi and Ali-Asghar Shahbazi|
What’s always stood out in Iranian cinema is how the portrait of life in Iran, and especially in Tehran, the big city, is so much like our Western norm, yet significantly different, too. (The mullahs in Iran would cringe at the former statement and some have decried A Separation as proffering a false picture of the country.) Panahi’s debut film The White Balloon (1995), in which a little girl gets lost in the urban jungle of Tehran, paints a world where children are ignored, immigrants are viewed with suspicion and people fail to listen to each other. Sound familiar? But Panahi’s later films, such as The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006) are explicit broadsides launched at the state; the former depicting a severely circumscribed world where women have virtually no rights that are not granted them by men, the latter a lighter (and subtler) look at the lengths young women, who are rabid soccer fans, will go to to see a World Cup qualifying match when their gender is not allowed into the stadium. And Panahi’s Crimson Gold (2003), a film inspired by Taxi Driver (1976) and replicating much of its plot line, has a disturbing scene, one among many, where the cops raid a private party where men and women are illegally mixing. (The strictest interpretations of Islam prohibit women from interacting with any men they are not married or related to, a point of view it shares with the haradem, the most Orthodox of Jews.)
|Shahab Hosseini (centre) in a scene from A Separation|
The holy Qu’ran, startlingly, is almost wielded as weapon in the film, to be used to settle arguments or disparage another’s religious beliefs or imply a lack thereof. There’s a whiff of fascism in the way Razieh’s intolerant husband Hojuat (Shahab Hosseini), in particular, tries to imply that Nader and Simin aren’t sufficiently religious, i.e. moral. You can almost feel the secret police ready to pounce and haul the disbelievers away, except you also get the sense that those expected to enforce religious conformity or at least ensure that no rules are broken – the judiciary, the constabulary – don’t feel very passionate about the subject, either. That a bit of Simin’s hair is frequently visible under her hijab testifies to the laxness surrounding current religious observance as displayed in Iranian cinema. I think it’s also looser than in any other Iranian movies I’ve seen, though, of course, in private Iranian women often don’t wear any religious items of clothing at all. That’s a fact of life that cinema in Iran dare not depict, at least not yet.
Other aspects of A Separation are more universal. Both the secular Nader and the hot-headed, unemployed, religious Houjat are quite paternalistic, forcing their wives to sneak around behind their backs – Razieh doesn’t tell Houjat that she’s taken on the caretaker job – and, more crucially, hold back information their men ought to know, if only to help tamp down the angry emotions that are pitting them at each other’s throats. There’s a violent incident in the film that shook me because I’ve never seen violence depicted so directly before in Iranian cinema – not even in Crimson Gold, which was more oblique.
While some pieces of the puzzle surrounding the fight between Nader and Razieh are eventually unveiled, putting new spins on what we thought we knew, other ambiguities, such as the specific reasons that Nader and Simin’s marriage has fallen apart, are not. That’s refreshing and pleasingly open-ended, and even morally challenging. It also makes up for the movie’s occasional contrivances, such as Razieh’s continuing to work for Nader after she quits the first day. The meshing of the main story and the breakup of the marriage, which brackets the beginning and end of the movie, and its devastating effect on the child caught in the middle, doesn’t quite coalesce either, though the films’ actors are all superb. But if Farhadi doesn’t quite display the easy directorial confidence of a Panahi, or a Makhmalbaf, and if the film feels overly planned and laid out at times, his peek behind the curtain of a society and country we don’t know all that well offers fascinating and provocative pleasures nonetheless.
– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. He will next be teaching a course there on the films of Sidney Lumet, beginning on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.