Bravo to Iran for winning the coveted Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film with a brave, insightful study of the human condition.
At first, because of the headscarves and trenchant males, the viewer might be tut-tutting that this is just how we expected Iran to be -a male driven dominion. But indeed, this is how it is in many cultures throughout the world, including several kinds of religious and conservative communities in America.
So an obvious assumption that must be discarded is that this little film, produced on a modest budget, is only about Iran or the Muslim world. As Leila Hatami, the lead actress, has remarked,“I think it is about the human being and his weaknesses and faults. [It is also about] a woman who has a duty to guarantee the future of her daughter – she knows that by separating that it makes her daughter suffer. That’s why it touches everyone. Regardless of your social class or your culture, it reminds you of your faults and your rights.”
Surprisingly, despite its rigid projection as a devout state, Iran may have the fastest growing divorce rate in the world. The New York Times has reported that nationwide divorce grew by as much as 16 percent within the last year. Other reports, like one from Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, report that in some sectors the divorce rate is as high as 90 percent with women being the majority of the petitioners.
Women the world over expect a voice in their lives, and this is an issue in “A Separation.” The plot revolves around Simin, portrayed with mature, understated grace by Hatami, who wants a divorce from her husband. After much time and effort she, her husband and her daughter had been granted a visa to leave Iran and establish themselves outside of “these circumstances” that they have in Iran – but now he refuses to go.
Once the exit permits were granted they are given a window of 40 days to leave. But Nader, ruggedly well-acted by Peyman Moadi, decides he can’t leave his progressively deteriorating father. This is a noble gesture and the audience is immediately biased in his favor, perceiving his wife as shallow, self-centered and insensitive because she would rather divorce her husband and leave the country than stay and help him with his father.
However, my contention is that this film is a lot more than first meets the eye. It is not just a story about a particular divorce case, but actually an allegory on life on several levels. First, it reflects what is happening sociologically in Iran.
Whether intentionally or not, writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s film can be seen as a reflection of the socio-political circumstance in his own country. The deteriorating father with Alzheimer’s can represent the older generation who grew up during the deposed Shah’s rule. They seem to have forgotten about those days of relative freedom. They are silent about the current “circumstances” in Iran, which includes the totalitarian control of their country.
The next generation, Nader and Simin’s, are split. Some are fervently supportive of their “circumstances,” but others, like Simin, do not accept the situation and would rather leave.
The third generation, played out by Simin and Nader’s daughter, (Sarima Farhadi – the director’s daughter), has a choice. She can stay with her father, who represents tradition and loyalty, or go with her mother, who wants to have an unencumbered future and a voice that is heard and respected.
This is also the choice of every new generation – to continue on with the status quo or break away to establish an individual identity.
Secondly, it reflects people, politics and gender equity issues throughout the world.
On a third level this film is about seeing both sides of the divide. The audience appreciates the nobility depicted in loyalty to a country, a religious culture, a family and the status quo. Yet as the film moves on we understand and appreciate the wife with her died red hair as she fights for honesty, pragmatism, freedom and her own voice. She loves her family, but she holds more firmly to her principles.
Until her husband, representative of domineering self-righteousness everywhere, can understand and accept his wife, representative of those wanting respect and equality, he is doomed.
These rich layers of context get suddenly complicated when one of the characters is accused of a murder.
How many kinds of separations are there? What is the solution for these two people who love each other?
“A Separation” does what the great foreign and independent films do best. It forces the viewer to slow down, reflect and leave the theater with substance for rich conversation.
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Writer: Asghar Farhadi
Stars: Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami and Sareh Bayat
Released: March 16, 2011 (Iran); Sept. 4, 2011 (US)
Runtime: 123 minutes
Language: Farsi with subtitles in English
Film Location: Tehran, Iran
Winner of the 2012 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar
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