Iran’s ‘A Separation’ bringing people together


When Iranian cinema has been in the news of late, it is largely for the legal troubles of leading filmmakers, faced with jail terms, house arrests and bans from travel, interviews and even making future films. Yet since his film’s premiere early this year, Asghar Farhadi has found success inside and outside his home country with “A Separation,” the film resonating with audiences who read it alternately as a deeply felt domestic drama and a finely crafted sociopolitical allegory.

When the film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, it walked away with the Golden Bear, the festival’s top prize, as well as awards recognizing the film’s lead actor and actress. The film, which opens in Los Angeles on Dec. 30, has gone on to be one of the most universally celebrated of the year. It was recently still running a rare 100% rating on the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, based on more than two dozen reviews. It was a box office hit within Iran and was chosen to represent the country as its submission for the Academy Award for best foreign language film.

The story’s layered richness, the way in which it seems to be about many things at once, is arguably Farhadi’s greatest accomplishment with “A Separation,” a feat of screenwriting, performance and directing. In its exploration of class differences — the lead couple of Nader and Simin are comfortably middle class, while their housekeeper and her unemployed husband struggle to make ends meet — as well as ideas of modernity versus religious traditionalism and how behaviors are imprinted from one generation to another, the film creates a rich thematic tapestry. Many reviewers and commentators have leaped to portray the film as having a political consciousness as well, summed up by a Guardian headline that proclaimed, “‘A Separation’ Can’t Be Divorced From Iranian Politics.”


For his part, Farhadi is more circumspect. “I wished not to impose a point of view on the spectator, not to dictate what conclusions they reached,” Farhadi said during a recent phone call from Paris, where he is working on his next script. “I have watched the film together with many audiences in different parts of the world and there have been a few people who see the film as having a political point of view, others who see it as having a moral perspective, others who see it with a social aim, others who see it as reflecting ordinary day-to-day life. It can be any of these things.”

The story revolves around a middle-class urban couple who are on the verge of splitting up. The wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), wants to leave the country for better opportunities for their daughter (Sarina Farhadi), while the husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi), feels obligated to stay to care for his father, who has Alzheimer’s. When complications arise with the woman (Sareh Bayat) hired to help Nader with his father — she files charges that following an argument he pushed her and caused her miscarriage — things go from tense to terrible. The film is in one sense a legal thriller, as it conveys the genuine anguish of regular people caught up in a potential lawsuit and criminal case, and the intense consequences it could have on all their lives.

The 39-year-old Farhadi got his start as a director and playwright in the Iranian theater, before moving to radio and television. He wrote and directed his debut feature film, “Dancing in the Dust,” in 2003 but really began to step onto the world cinema stage with his third film, “Fireworks Wednesday,” in 2006 and then “About Elly” in 2009, both of which also look at issues of family and deceit. “Elly” won him the directing prize at Berlin and the award for best narrative feature at the Tribeca Film Festival.

That he created a film as skillfully apolitical as “A Separation” that is also so intuitively connected to modern society and got it out to the world with official government approval, including the Oscar submission, is all the more remarkable for the contentious moment during which he has done so.

“It isn’t strange that Asghar in particular can make such movies,” said Moaadi, who also starred in “About Elly,” in an email. “He is a smart person and he knows the restrictions and limitations very well…. Asghar talks about humane and moral concerns and such issues are so vast and great that no restriction or limitation can be applied to them.”

With “A Separation,” Farhadi’s starting point was writing the story of a middle-aged man taking care of his elderly, Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. This led to wondering where is this man’s family, why is he alone caring for his father? While working on the early ideas of the film, Farhadi was driving his daughter to school each day and would talk to her about his emerging story. This led him to introduce the character of the daughter and to come to filter many of the actions of the adults through her perspective. (And to cast his own daughter in the part.)


In a review in the Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Young declared that the film “succeeds in bringing Iranian society into focus in a way few other films have done,” while also noting it “has the potential to engage Western audiences” well beyond that of many foreign language imports (particularly now with its distribution by foreign-language powerhouse Sony Pictures Classics). Iran has been nominated for the foreign language Oscar only once, for 1997’s “Children of Heaven.” Where many of the Iranian films that have been seen by American audiences have been set in rural locations and featured children or amateur actors, Farhadi sets his films among urban dwellers and prefers working with professional actors to capture his layered sense of real life.

The production time on “A Separation,” from writing to completion, took less than a year; though there was a brief hiccup when the film for a short time lost its government approval. That problem was perhaps smoothed over with the same perceptive, quiet resolve Farhadi brings to his filmmaking. Especially in light of the film’s positive reception at festival after festival around the world, it can seem as if Farhadi is getting away with something in plain sight.

“I had not anticipated this degree of appreciation abroad,” Farhadi said. “Relative to my other films I had anticipated that this film, being a more complex film, would actually be less well received.”

“A Separation” ends on something of an ambiguous moment — in the lexicon of the legal thriller it’s a bona-fide cliffhanger — with lives in the balance. At screening after screening, audiences have asked Farhadi what comes next for his characters, and time and time again he declines to give declarative relief one way or the other.

“It’s not like I know the answer and I’m not saying,” he said. “I just don’t know. When I write a character, the character doesn’t follow me, I follow it. Sometimes when people ask questions I really don’t know. I feel like, ‘Go ask them, ask the characters.’ What do I know?”