Subtly Out of Tehran

BY STEVE ERICKSON

With “A Separation,” Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has managed something increasingly difficult and unusual — pleasing audiences both at home and in the West. Released at a time when the Iranian government has moved from merely censoring films to arresting actors and directors, it won the Audience Award at Iran’s Fajr Film Festival, went on to box office and critical success there, and became the Iranian film industry’s official selection for our Academy Awards.

It received its Western premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the top prize and took two other awards as well. Recently, it’s won several awards from American critics’ groups, even though its distributor decided not to release it until 2011 is almost over. A cynic might find something calculating in all this success and acclaim.

I think there’s something different at work in “A Separation.” Whether by luck or design, the artistry of this film coincides with the demands of the mullahs. Farhadi’s script proceeds by hiding certain key moments from the audience. It pivots around an act of violence that remains unseen, though the incident reverberates through the entire film. It’s mild enough that Farhadi probably could have gotten away with showing it; after all, he shows a brief fight between his two lead male characters.

However, there are other areas where Farhadi clearly avoided getting into sensitive matters too deeply. “A Separation” implies that the middle-class couple who open the film may be atheists simply by contrasting their avoidance of religious expression with the example of a poorer woman that goes to work for them and her husband, who constantly express their Islamic devotion. The film may have dodged a bullet by showing the better-off couple affirming their faith in its climax, even if it also suggests that their spiritual impulses are primitive and superstitious.

After an opening scene of passports being xeroxed, “A Separation” heads to divorce court. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) are separating because she wants to emigrate while he chooses to stay to care for his ailing father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. After her request apparently fails, Simin returns to her parents’ house, while the couple’s daughter decides to stay with Nader and her grandfather.

Nader hires a housekeeper to help take care of his father, but that leads to a disastrous chain of events. After tying her patient to his oxygen bottle and leaving him alone in the apartment, the old man falls out of bed and injures himself. After an ensuing argument, the housekeeper accuses Nader of hitting her and knocking her down a flight of stairs.

“A Separation” proves engaging in part due to its combination of freshness and familiarity. Its story could be take place in Manhattan or Los Angeles, with a Latina, rather than a poor Muslim, housekeeper. At the conclusion of an awkward September New York Times interview, Farhadi said, “I don’t like for it to be considered a depiction of a totally foreign other.” In fact, his script seems influenced by playwrights like Ibsen and Chekhov.

That said, there’s nothing theatrical about the film. Farhadi’s camera is highly mobile, and he often favors quick cuts. “A Separation” is far from being an action movie, but it suggests that he could make a good one. He uses shallow focus to suggest shifting patterns of allegiances among the characters and sympathy among spectators.

None of the characters emerges unscathed. The courtroom scene that kicks off the film’s drama puts us in the shoes of the judge by having Simin and Nader face the camera directly, talking into it.

No country is more demonized by the American media than Iran. Yet Iranian cinema — at least what is distributed here — paints a different picture of Iranian life than the news, with its persistent focus on whether that nation’s going to develop a nuclear bomb.

That’s not to say that “A Separation” sidesteps acknowledging deep strains of conservatism and misogyny in Iranian culture. In front of the judge, Simin talks about not wanting to raise a daughter in Iran, while the housekeeper is so devout she calls an Islamic hotline to ask if it’s sinful to change the soiled pants of a senile old man.

After a period when Iranian cinema was almost trendy — highlighted by the 1997 Cannes Palme D’Or going to Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry” — it fell out of fashion, but it has recently regained some of its artistic strength. That recovery, however, is tentative.

“A Separation” is the first of three Iranian films that will open in New York in as many months. The Iranian government’s heavy hand threatens to crush this rebirth. After Jafar Panahi was sentenced to a six-year jail term and a 20-year ban from filmmaking (currently being appealed) on charges of threatening national security through propaganda, his “This Is Not A Film,” which plays the Film Forum in February, may be his final cinematic statement.

Farhadi seems to have reached a workable middle ground. Let’s hope he can keep it up.

Essentials:

A SEPARATION

Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Sony Pictures Classics

In Farsi with English subtitles

Opens Dec. 30

Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St.

filmforum.org

Lincoln Plaza Cinema

1886 Broadway at 63rd St.

lincolnplazacinema.com

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