In Iranian film, director wanted quandaries to be universal
NEW YORK - You’ll be hard pressed to find any villains, heroes, or easy answers in Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian drama “A Separation.’’ The film, which opens here on Friday, captured a Golden Globe award last Sunday and has been generating increasing heat as a front-runner in the Oscar race for best foreign language film.
As the film’s characters struggle to understand each other, everyone has their point of view. And all seem to be simultaneously right and wrong in equal measure, with each character’s behavior informed by various intrinsic factors, including age, gender, social class, education, and religious beliefs.
“When I’m making films, I try to not prejudge or take sides with any of the characters. But my message here is not to say, ‘Don’t judge.’ Judging is part of human life. But you should understand that judging is not simple or easy,’’ said Farhadi, 39, through a translator, a few days after “A Separation’’ premiered to rapturous applause at the New York Film Festival last fall.
“During the film, you might have a certain judgment in the beginning about some character, but then once your perspective changes, and you look at it from another angle, you’ll realize that it was not the correct judgment. For that reason, I try not to judge while I’m making the film; I only try to show different angles and different perspectives around a certain issue.’’
Audiences and critics have been raving about the film’s shifting perspectives ever since it began its awards march last winter, nabbing the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. Since then, the film has captured a host of year-end prizes.
Set in contemporary urban Iran, the film begins with a middle-class couple, Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), arguing in front of a judge. Simin wants a divorce, not because Nader is a bad husband or father but because he refuses to leave the country with her to seek a better life for their daughter. Nader maintains he has to stay and look after his aging father, who has Alzheimer’s. The judge denies Simin’s request, and she angrily moves out of their apartment. With his wife gone, Nader hires a devout religious woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to care for his father while he’s at work.
Before long, conflict erupts between Razieh and Nader. As the situation spirals out of control, they land before a judge, alongside Razieh’s hot-headed, sanctimonious husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hoseini), who is deep in debt to creditors and unaware that Razieh had taken a job. Simin reenters the picture, and the two families clash bitterly, with class resentments, politics, religious-secular tensions, and contrasting gender roles rising to the fore.
As the film shifts from a domestic story to an intricate legal thriller to a carefully observed, morally complex social drama, it poses a number of perplexing questions for the audience.
“There’s still this kind of thinking that cinema has the mission or the duty to explain certain things to people and enforce certain messages. But I think that period for cinema has passed,’’ said Farhadi, who has a soft-spoken, easygoing manner. “What I try to do in my own films is to put a question mark next to the things that raise questions in my mind in my own personal life.’’
A few of the quandaries that Farhadi ponders in “A Separation’’ include: “What is the criteria for us to judge people’s behaviors? Are these criteria based on civil laws? Are they based on religious laws? Or are they based on human conscience?’’ he asked. “Also, how much free will do people really have, and how much of it is affected by outside conditions that force themselves upon people?’’
At the moment, Farhadi is enjoying the film’s glowing reception. It’s the biggest success of his career so far, and his country has largely embraced the film. But it’s been a bumpy road. In the midst of production, the government revoked its permission to shoot “A Separation’’ after Farhadi voiced support for fellow Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who’s been sentenced to six years in prison and slapped with a 20-year ban on filmmaking. After Farhadi apologized, officials allowed the film to be completed.
“There are definitely problems for someone who wants to make serious films [in Iran],’’ he said. “But when I make a film and I bring it to the West, I really don’t want to moan and groan about the conditions and make the audience feel bad for me.’’
Earlier this month, Iranian officials shut down the country’s key film industry guild, the House of Cinema. Authorities complained that it was allowing filmmakers at its festival to express views critical of the government. Still, Farhadi said that he is resolved to continue to make films in Iran despite government censorship and crackdowns.
“Imagine that you have a child, and the child is sick, and you cannot do anything about it,’’ he explained. “Would you abandon the child, leave the house, and go to your friends’ house? Or would you stay at home and hold your child’s hand, even though you know that you cannot change anything or do anything about his health? . . . Right now, my country is like the sick child that I choose to stay with.’’
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.