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.
In some cases, the final punishment is less than initially threatened. Vafamehr’s sentence was lifted, charges against Milani were eventually dropped, and Panahi has been serving house arrest, which hasn’t deterred him from making a film cheekily titled “This Is Not a Film.” But the impact on free expression is chilling.
Farhadi insists that political readings of his film are misleading. Is the old man who is almost bedridden, whose frailty has stressed the marriage between Nadir and Simin and become a factor in their separation, an allegory for the state, for a sclerotic regime or retrograde social milieu?
“If you have a political discourse about him, you are belittling this character,” Farhadi said. “You could think that -- I don’t mind that — but what is important is that the grandfather talks less than everybody else.” It is a curious fact about Iranian directors, who suffer the impact of a working in a conservative society: They are the ones who give voice to the traditional society, who help it make its best and worst claims on modernity.
Success and international acclaim are no surety against government interference for Farhadi. Although many of the most acclaimed Iranian films over the past decade have dealt with the hard edge of life in Iran, the focus (as in the films of Majid Majidi) is often on children. Directors have tended to shoot outdoors, avoiding the complications of filming adult men and women together indoors, where social taboos are stronger and offense more easily given. But Farhadi’s narrative is about adults, about divorce, about lies and recriminations, and about a woman who desperately wants to leave Iran. And it is an assertively indoor film, set in a lovingly detailed apartment that seems to give viewers a powerful sense of the sophistication of Tehran’s upper middle class.
Although divorce is increasingly common in Iran, the subject was still a risk for Farhadi.
“I was lucky to get it passed,” he said of the government censors who must sign off on scripts. The process of finessing government intrusion begins with the very conception of a film.
“First, you have to decide if you want to show the film in Iran or not,” he said. “If so, you have to get permission to make it.”
For Farhadi, there’s no question that he is making his films to be seen in Iran, which sets him apart from directors such as Bahman Ghobadi, who have chosen exile over the cumbersome, frustrating and unpredictable process of internal filmmaking.
“I prefer, before anyone else sees it, that Iranians see it,” Farhadi said.
Making films for the international audience also has its complications.
“A lot of films will be distributed overseas, but won’t be shown in Iran,” said Tom Vick, curator of film at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries. But that can serve government interests as well. “It is almost a way of saying, ‘Look how tolerant we are.’ They use these films as a kind of propaganda.”
Farhadi said that even as his film has racked up honors and ecstatic reviews, government officials have looked for “new problems” in its content. “From the financial side, the technical questions, it is easier” to make a film after an international success such as “A Separation,” he said. “But the government side is different. They are now very focused on me.”
If Iranian directors work under constant scrutiny, they seem to invite the audience to watch their films with the same focused, laserlike attention. Attention to detail isn’t just a matter of dressing the set or making pretty pictures. It has ethical implications.
In “Mourning,” the debut film of Morteza Farshbaf (a protege of the director Abbas Kiarostami), a Coke bottle becomes an essential but enigmatic plot point. At least four scenes in this haunting film, which will be screened at the Freer Gallery on Feb. 12, relate to the bottle before it is used in a small act of sabotage. Awareness of the bottle puts the viewer into the position of the film’s quietly observant central character, a young boy who is watching his future play out through the sign language used by his aunt and uncle.
The apartment in which Farhadi’s film unfolds is also rich in data. And it is entirely constructed. He moved walls and rearranged doors to create a space. A reproduction of a famous painting by Andrew Wyeth is seen fleetingly several times, along with an image of an American Indian. It is a carefully fabricated place that recalls traditional culture, modernity and the mix of worlds that each character lives in.
The point was ultimately not so much about anthropological information as estrangement. He said he wanted to show “a strangeness to the space.” Although Farhadi said that the attention to detail and domesticity in Iranian film probably is the residue of Iranian cinema’s long-standing fascination with Italian neorealism, the films of directors such as Vittorio De Sica, his film is operating on another level. His constructed world — especially images of glass and transparency — demands attention, just as his elaborate plot demands attention. But the more attentive one is, the more ambiguous (and less transparent) the film becomes. Detail ultimately drives uncertainty, contributing to the open-ended quality of the drama. It offers a simple ethical lesson: To observe the world closely will make you less confident in your judgment, less dogmatic.
Although politics affects everything about Iranian cinema, “A Separation” isn’t an overtly political film. It doesn’t have, in the leaden manner of Hollywood, any kind of message. But it affirms one of the deepest truths of cinema as art: that to watch a film closely can save us from ourselves.