One should hardly be surprised that Iranian filmmakers are the world’s best exponents of the moral dilemma. The entire country is one big moral dilemma, inhabited by charming, sophisticated, intelligent people condemned to live under a system that many find abhorrent. In Iran, as every visitor discovers, the extremist state routinely denounced by western politicians bears no relation to the human landscape. This may suggest it is only a matter of time before a more liberal approach emerges, but it’s horribly likely there will be a conflagration before that day arrives.
In the meantime the Iranian film industry continues to turn out one brilliant, low-budget drama after another. Many of these films are never released in Iran itself, although they cut a swathe through the international film festival circuit, picking up a succession of awards.
Leading directors such as Kiarostami, Panahi, Majidi and the Makhmalbafs act as cultural ambassadors for a nation that often treats them like criminals.
Recent reports suggest that the government is set to impose a severe crackdown on the local film industry. Such a campaign would rob Iran of the foremost avenue of communication through which the rest of the world has been able to acquire a civilised and sympathetic view of the Islamic republic.
This threat may have influenced the groundswell of support that saw Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation take out this year’s Academy Award for best foreign language film. If the award was merely politically motivated it would be an implicit insult to all those movies that fall outside the glittering confines of Hollywood, but this is certainly not the case.
A Separation is a gripping story told in a spare, no-frills manner. Beyond the narrative itself there is a subtext about everyday life in Iran; behind each character, a complex web of motivations and insecurities. The viewer is not treated to an omniscient overview. We follow the action in the same manner as the participants, feeling anxiety and confusion at each new twist.
This is a film about truth and justice, but the two often seem to be completely at odds.
Simin (Leila Hatami), is determined to take her family abroad, where a better life may be had for her teenage daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Her husband, Nader (Peyman Maadi), cannot comply because he is responsible for the care of his aged father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Moral dilemma no. 1: “Is your child’s future more important than your duty to a disabled parent?”
The disagreement leads to a separation. Simin goes back to live with her family, leaving Nader and Termeh to cope with grand-dad. Because he has to go to work, Nader hires a woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to look after the flat and his father. This proves to be a difficult job, compounded by the pressures exerted by Razieh’s hotheaded husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), who is out of work and deeply in debt.
One mishap leads to another, and soon Nader finds himself accused of having murdered Razieh’s unborn child by roughly pushing her out of the apartment. We find that the Iranian legal system makes swift, summary judgements, with little concern for extenuating circumstances. There is also the option of paying “blood money”, which seems to contradict the rigid code originally laid out by the judge.
Someone is lying, perhaps everyone, but it becomes increasingly difficult to say what is true and what is false. The chief moral dilemma for Nader is: “Do I tell the truth, if it means I may be imprisoned and thereby ruin my daughter’s life?” There are missing pieces of the puzzle that have a significant impact on questions of guilt and responsibility. For Termeh, the experience is a rite of passage. Up to this point in her life she has been able to believe that the truth is sacred, but is now forced to realise the unjust consequences of a full disclosure.
There is no twist in this story that does not throw up a new issue. Many of these dilemmas are peculiar to Iran, and one may extract an oblique form of social criticism from the way the justice system and a rigid morality put extraordinary pressures on ordinary people. The characters in this story are turned into liars and hypocrites by circumstances that keep threatening to spiral out of control, first favouring one party then the other.
But if we strip away the hijab and all the other trappings of an Islamic state, A Separation presents a story that could unfold anywhere. There is nothing so exotic in this tale that makes it possible to distance ourselves from the central characters and say: “It couldn’t happen here.” Many of the problems raised by this film are universal ones that could be transposed to New York or Paris or Sydney. Beyond its insights into Islamic society, it is this sense of shared values that makes the Iranian cinema so engaging for viewers around the world. It’s ironic that it takes a film called A Separation to bring us closer together.
Iran, Rated M, 123 minutes