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Iran’s 'A Separation' Is the Best Foreign Film of the Year

The filmmaker and star of Iran’s 'A Separation' open up to Marlow Stern about the most critically acclaimed film of 2011.

Habib Madjidi / Sony Pictures Classics

Tensions between Iran and the U.S. haven’t been this high since the Iran hostage crisis.

This morning, the Associated Press confirmed an earlier report that Iran has begun enriching uranium in an underground bunker, thereby ignoring threats from both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, the two frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination, to halt its nuclear-weapons program immediately or face military action. As if things couldn’t get any worse, Iran also announced today it had sentenced a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen to death for allegedly spying for the CIA.

So it comes as even more of a shock that an Iranian film has not only emerged as the favorite for the foreign-film Oscar but was also awarded the distinction of being the best-reviewed film of the past year, according to Metacritic.

Directed by acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, A Separation, which opened in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 30 and will be rolled out in January, has become an international phenomenon. When the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, it walked away with the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear. Shot over three months in Tehran on a modest budget of $700,000, the film has also become a box-office hit both in its native Iran, grossing more than $3 million there, and abroad ($9 million–plus and counting). Many Oscar pundits are even saying it may score Oscar nominations not just for foreign film but for original screenplay and directing as well, putting it in the company of only three other films to do so: , Seven Beauties, and Life Is Beautiful. And renowned film critic Roger Ebert ranked the movie No. 1 on his list of "The Best Films of 2011," writing, “A Separation will become one of those enduring masterpieces watched decades from now.”

“It makes me happy that the reactions of audiences inside and outside Iran are very similar,” says Farhadi over coffee with The Daily Beast. “When this film was screened in Iran, the audience members I had contact with didn’t think it was a strange story, but like something that happens in their lives. And when I was staying at a hotel in New York City, the doorman told me he saw the film at the New York Film Festival and he really liked it.”

A Separation opens with an upper-middle-class couple, Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi), on the verge of splitting. Nader feels obligated to care for his ailing father, who has Alzheimer’s, and wishes to keep the family in Tehran, while Simin is contemplating a divorce so that she can raise their daughter abroad where she’ll be afforded better opportunities.

Problems arise when Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a poor, pregnant, and religiously conservative woman, is hired to help care for Nader’s father while Nader is at work. A misunderstanding turns into a heated exchange between Nader and Razieh, leading to him pushing her out the door of his apartment, where she falls; she later accuses Nader of causing her miscarriage. What follows is both a tense courtroom drama and a revealing commentary on contemporary Iranian society that explores everything from gender issues and class warfare to honor and religion.

If you think making an independent film in the U.S. is difficult, think about how implausible the process is in Iran. First, your script must pass Iranian censors; then you must submit the completed film to a committee that watches it and then gives you license to screen it. While the Iranian government didn’t alter anything in Farhadi’s script or the finished product, the production ran into a bit of trouble due to statements Farhadi made at Iran’s September 2010 House of Cinema festival. He reportedly said he wished exiled filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf and imprisoned filmmaker Jafar Panahi, both oppositionists connected to the Iranian Green Movement, could be at the festival. Officials then closed the set for a week, but allowed production to resume when Farhadi apologized and said his words were taken out of context.

“As an artist you have to know the restrictions and limitations,” says Moadi, one of the film's stars. “Although they change sometimes day by day and hour by hour, no limitation can trouble a strong story. On the contrary, these obstacles make the artist even more creative.”

Farhadi, for his part, believes that while censorship in Iran can inspire creativity—much as the Hays Code did for Alfred Hitchcock and other filmmakers in the 1940s and '50s—it’s also very dangerous to think that constraints foster creativity.

“It gives a pretext to those who censor,” he says. “In the short term, it may lead to a more creative way of saying things, but if it continues, it will completely eradicate creativity.”

Farhadi believes the strictly vetted film has such universal appeal because moral dilemmas happen everywhere, and the struggles between one’s history and one’s future, traditionalism versus modernity, aren’t unique to Iran. And the issue of divorce, judging by the film's title, looms large. While there is just one divorce for every seven marriages in Iran, the divorce rate has tripled over the past decade, up to 150,000 in 2010. “It seems like divorce is one of the consequences of a society moving from its traditional past to a modern present,” Farhadi says.

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Farhadi is currently working on a screenplay with acclaimed writer Yazmina Reza, who penned the play God of Carnage, that he hopes to shoot in France soon; he has approached Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) and Marion Cotillard for leads. When asked if A Separation could become not only the first Iranian film since 1997’s Children of Heaven—and second ever—to be nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, but also the first to win the award, the mild-mannered Farhadi unleashes a big smile, and then maintains his composure.

“If this happens, filmmakers inside Iran will be motivated despite all the obstacles in their way,” he says. But then he pauses. “I don’t think it will affect our relationship with the United States. If they knew the way to engage in a dialogue through a window of culture or art, we would not be where we are right now.”