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A Complex 'Separation' In Iran

Dec 30, 2011
Originally published on December 30, 2011 10:50 am

The Iranian drama A Separation has popped up on more than a few critics' lists of the best films of 2011, despite little exposure in the U.S. thus far. It will open in limited release December 30, and as Howie Movshovitz of Colorado Public Radio reports on Friday's Morning Edition, it serves as both a family drama and a piece of social observation about life in Iran.

Writer and director Asghar Farhadi, speaking through a translator, explains that A Separation hinges on a question that a judge asks a woman who wants to take her 11-year-old daughter to live a more "modern" life outside the country, against the father's wishes: "'What are the conditions that [mean] you don't want to live here and you don't want to raise your children here?' The film tries to give an explanation of the question that was asked by the judge."

That question turns out to involve deep differences in matters of class, religion, and modernity versus tradition. "This is a very natural phenomenon in any society that is about to leave the traditional lifestyle and enter modern life," Farhadi says. "It's dangerous when these two groups enter a war zone with each other instead of getting into a dialogue."

In the report, Movshovitz also speaks to Hamid Naficy, who's written extensively about Iranian cinema and who teaches film at Northwestern University, about the way the increasingly complex and difficult family circumstances Farhadi depicts shed light on a certain "duality of culture" (as Naficy calls it). Within that duality, he says, "publicly people seem to abide, but privately, everybody is defying in one way or another all the rules and regulations, whether these are rules and regulations of the state, or that of family, or that of schools, or that of workplace, so everybody's trying to get ahead. It's a 'survival of the fittest' kind of environment. And I think Farhadi shows the human face of that, but also hints at the tragic consequences of it."

Naficy also speaks about the way the tight camera angles, limited physical spaces, and limited lighting enhance what he calls the "cauldron environment" in which the family in the story is living.

Naturally, Farhadi is aware that his brand of social observation may not be universally welcomed by officials, but he sees it as a risk that he takes to pursue the work he wants to do, and he draws an analogy to other activities that might carry risks: "I think when anyone steps into a car and decides to drive, they can't be sure whether or not they'll be safe. So far, I haven't had an accident."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

A new film from Iran opens in theaters today. It deals with the subject of divorce, a sensitive topic everywhere, but especially so in Iran. The film is called "A Separation." It's won awards all over the world including four at the Berlin Film Festival. It was the New York film critic's best foreign film of 2011. Howie Movshovitz of Colorado Public Radio talked to its writer and director about a story that goes beyond one family.

HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ, BYLINE: "A Separation" begins with a husband and wife explaining their differences to a judge.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A SEPARATION")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MOVSHOVITZ: The wife is a modern woman who wants a modern life for herself and the couple's 11-year-old daughter, outside of Iran. The husband says he wants to stay in the country to care for his Alzheimer's-stricken father; he also intends to keep custody of the daughter, which is customary in Iran. Asghar Farhadi wrote and directed the film.

ASGHAR FARHADI: (Through Translator) The whole film is the explanation of a question that the judge asks. And the question is for the woman to answer: what are the conditions that you don't want to live here, and you don't want to raise your children here? The film tries to give an explanation of the question that was asked by the judge.

MOVSHOVITZ: The answer reaches into conflicts between the urban upper middle class and the working class, which in turn, bring up opposing attitudes over religion and secularity, modernity and traditionalism.

FARHADI: (Through Translator) Part of the people of the society think that they want to adapt to modern life and they want to keep going with the flow, but another part thinks they want to retain the traditional identities of the past. This is a very natural phenomenon in any society that is about to leave the traditional lifestyle and enter modern life.

(Through Translator) It's dangerous when these two groups enter a war zone with each other, instead of getting into dialogue.

MOVSHOVITZ: After the couple separates, the husband hires a working class woman from a traditional family to care for his father. She'll have to clean the old man, and the secular husband forgot that a traditional Muslim woman cannot touch a man to whom she's not related.

So now she has to seek religious counseling, and the complications spin out of control. As a result, not everyone tells the truth. Hamid Naficy, professor of film at Northwestern University and the author of a four volume history of Iranian cinema, says that's a pretty accurate reflection of Iranian society.

HAMID NAFICY: Publicly, people seem to abide, but privately everybody is defying in one way or another, all the rules and regulations. I think Farhadi shows the human face of that, but also hints at the tragic consequences of it and the way there is almost no way out of any situations, because every situation gets more complicated as you get deeper into it.

MOVSHOVITZ: And the way the film looks reflects those complexities.

NAFICY: So the lighting is very dark; the curtains are drawn; the physical space is small, and then on top of that, the camera work is also very tight. Shot compositions are tight, and emphasizing, re-emphasizing the spatial claustrophobia. Which again, I think, sort of emphasizes again, the kind of cauldron environment, in which the whole family, the whole story is taking place. The whole society, I think, in a way, comes across as a very claustrophobic society.

MOVSHOVITZ: Both Naficy and filmmaker Asghar Farhadi agree that "A Separation" is more social observation than overt social criticism. The filmmaker walks a fine line in a country that's imprisoned artists and filmmakers, including the renowned director Jaffar Panahi. But Farhadi says the Iranian government is more diverse than Americans think. Some officials tolerate his work, some don't. Farhadi compares it to driving a car.

FARHADI: (Through Translator) I think when anyone steps into a car and decides to drive, they can't be sure whether or not they'll be safe. So far, I haven't had an accident.

MOVSHOVITZ: But it's still good to know the rules of the road.

For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.