Asghar Farhadi's 'A Separation' aims for Oscar hat trick

Although its U.S. theatrical opening is still two weeks away, Iran's official Oscar submission, the gripping domestic drama "A Separation," has already gathered such a head of award season steam that it appears a virtual shoo-in for a foreign-language film nomination. The hoopla — which includes a recent win for its screenplay from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. in addition to top foreign film nods from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle — has also helped put the movie's writer-producer-director, Asghar Farhadi, on the radar to compete for such top Academy Awards as director and original screenplay.

But, according to Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which is distributing "A Separation," his company has long had its eye on Oscar nominations for the movie beyond simply the foreign-language award.

"Academy members pay attention to high-quality foreign-language films and American independent films all the time," said Barker, reached by phone from New York. "You just have to put [the film] in front of them and say, 'Please consider this in other categories.'"

Should "A Separation" earn Oscar nominations in all three categories — foreign film, original screenplay and director — it would join an elite group of features that have achieved this hat trick, including "8½," "Seven Beauties" and "Life Is Beautiful."

And, it seems, no one would be more surprised by that than "A Separation's" Farhadi, who traveled from Iran to Los Angeles last week for a brief publicity visit. "Actually, this was a film which, in comparison to my other films, I had anticipated would have some difficulty connecting with non-Farsi-speaking audiences because its subject matter seemed more complex," Farhadi said through an interpreter, over coffee at a Beverly Hills hotel. "As a result, I am now confronted by something I had not in any way foreseen."

Ironically, given its current groundswell of Oscar buzz, Farhadi, 39, says the film met with considerable resistance by several factions of Iran's selection committee: Those who felt the internationally well-received film "pleased the West"; others who considered the movie, which involves divorce, morality and murder, too dark; and a third, larger group whose objection, Farhadi said, "stemmed from the fact that 'this filmmaker is not one of us, so why should we contribute to his success?'" He added, "I'm not one of the people whose work the government particularly likes."

Ultimately, though, "the climate for the film that had been created [in Iran] between filmmakers, critics and the public" did not allow the naysayers to succeed, Farhadi said.

But this isn't Farhadi's first run at an Oscar. His previous work, the award-winning relationship drama "About Elly," was Iran's official submission for the 2009 foreign-language prize. Unfortunately, the movie's U.S. distributor went bankrupt, dropped the ball on "Elly's" Oscar campaign, and the movie was never able to properly compete.

To date, only one film from Iran has been nominated for the foreign-language Oscar: 1997's "Children of Heaven," which lost to "Life Is Beautiful." Although "A Separation" seems destined to change that statistic, what would an actual academy win do for the Iranian film community?

"It would be a great motivation for Iranian filmmakers to feel as though they could address a much wider part of the world," said the warmly low-key Farhadi. "Going forward, Iranian films could be presented with greater confidence and distributors could feel more confident picking them up."

Iranian American filmmaker Hossein Keshavarz, whose recent debut feature, "Dog Sweat," was shot "illegally" (or underground) in Tehran to circumvent the censors, was also optimistic about a post-Oscar Iran. "To have an Iranian film nominated would be a cause for excitement, a cause for celebration," said Keshavarz via email. "It would give recognition to the wonderful work of Iranian artists and perhaps, in some small way, help create a space in which they can operate."

Both Farhadi and Keshavarz agreed, however, that an Academy Award would not foreseeably alter the Iranian government's stringent approach to filmmakers and censorship.

"Oscars don't really mean that much to them," said Farhadi. "Or, rather, if they do think it matters, they don't let on that it does."

Keshavarz added, "[Iran's] increasing crackdown on artists stems from the government's fear of losing power. Unless the government changes, the fear and pressure that artists live under will not end."

Meanwhile, Farhadi has chosen to stay cool amid the mounting heat for "A Separation" and has been using this time to collaborate with playwright Yasmina Reza ("Art," "God of Carnage") on a new screenplay. "Part of the reason I started to work immediately is because I have an awareness that this kind of a success can be a little bit like a banana peel that you slip on. By working, I create a counterforce to that effect."

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