At a time when Iran is an enigma to Americans, when it is difficult for foreign journalists to get access there and the country’s leaders seem almost as mercurial as the Kim clan of North Korea, the work of Farhadi and his compatriots in the Iranian cinema is a bracing dose of normality. Dispassionate, ferociously detailed, filled with the seductive small stuff of life, “A Separation” is as moving for what it says about quotidian existence in Tehran as it is for its rigorously constructed narrative. It begins and ends with the hard, ugly, juridical facts of divorce, and in between offers a study in how we know and remember the smallest events of life. By zeroing in on the most minute visual data — pictures on the wall, the architecture of an apartment, the age of a refrigerator — the film forces the viewer to focus on everything else: plot, character, truth and, ultimately, one’s own sense of certainty.
In an interview a few days before he won the Golden Globe, Farhadi said he had no intention of making a film that might serve as ambassador to the Western world. The “first audience, for the artist, is always yourself,” he insisted. If the film humanizes the Iranian people, seen under the daily stress of frenetic urban existence, exacerbated by a bad economy and the effect of international sanctions, that is a happy accident.
“People might think that we made this film just to show the conditions in Iran to the world,” he said. But “I don’t separate audiences — Iranian, foreign, men, women.”
Farhadi is 40 years old, although a beard and a serious demeanor make him seem older. He uses an interpreter but knows English well enough to follow the questions and correct the interpreter if the meaning isn’t exactly right.
Being cautious about what appears on the record, especially while traveling in a Western country, is a matter of grave importance to Iranian artists. Farhadi’s colleagues, including directors and film distributors in Iran, have been arrested, imprisoned and threatened with severe punishment.
Last year, a major Iranian film actress, Marzieh Vafamehr, was reportedly sentenced to a year in prison and 90 lashes after acting in a film that offended conservative sensibilities. In December 2010, the eminent director Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment and a 20-year ban on filmmaking for “colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” And more than a decade ago, Tahmineh Milani, a prominent filmmaker, was arrested and accused of supporting “factions waging war against God,” which could have brought a death penalty.