Though you might not have guessed it from the brief and elegant acceptance speech made by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi at last week's Oscars, moviemaking in Iran today requires an authentic act of courage. Another world-class filmmaker from Iran, Jafar Panahi (The Circle, This Is Not a Film), was sentenced to a six-year prison term and will have to abide by a 20-year ban on making movies, traveling abroad and speaking to the press — all for "acting against national security and creating anti-regime propaganda" through his films. A Separation, the remarkable drama for which Farhadi won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, has no overtly political content. That didn't stop the Iranian government from temporarily banning Farhadi from making the film after he publicly expressed support for Panahi and other jailed and exiled filmmakers.
Farhadi says his fifth film carries no particular message, political or otherwise. But the context in which modern Iranian movies are made leaves them open to endless interpretation. Especially one like A Separation, which allows foreign audiences a rare and unobstructed view of Iranian culture and society. As the movie begins, a husband (Peyman Moadi) and wife (Leila Hatami) argue before a judge and halfheartedly request a divorce. She wants to take their daughter and move to the West to find a better life, but he needs to stay in Tehran and take care of his father, who's suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Their problem is deemed a small one, so a divorce is not granted and a separation ensues.
That opening scene is shot from the judge's point of view, putting the audience in his shoes and offering the first clue as to what Farhadi is really doing. The separation sets in motion a series of events that result in what may be a murder. The film's title refers not only to the troubled couple, but the painful divisions that exist between people in Iran and elsewhere. Small details loom large as the film moves along, and responsibility and blame get more difficult to assess. As Farhadi's characters grapple with each other and their own consciences, the film makes the viewer become a detective collecting clues that might lead to some kind of truth. Farhadi's grasp of the subtleties embedded in difficult ethical decisions is something not often seen on film.
Farhadi's refusal to tell us what to think about his characters' actions is supported by his light touch as director. A Separation looks like a documentary, and the talented cast delivers even pivotal lines in an offhand manner that sounds like real life. The film never calls much attention to itself, making the whole thing immersive and believable. It's no surprise to learn that Farhadi's background is in theater, and that his favorite movie is Kurosawa's classic Rashomon, which tells the same story from four different points of view.
A Separation doesn't provide many answers, but it inspires us to ask a lot of important questions. It quietly suggests that cultural differences, not political ones, provide a starting point for understanding. But there are no real resolutions to the film's many conflicts and contradictions. If that doesn't fit today's world like a finely tailored suit, it's hard to say what does. — KEN KORMAN