Posts filled under: a separation
What distinguishes “A Separation” from other, internationally recognized Iranian films is its labyrinthine screenplay, which has more in common with the twists and turns of a conventional Western narrative than it does with the relatively sparse, aesthetically austere films found in the Iranian social realist and arthouse genres. Our sympathy for certain characters versus others is called into question repeatedly as this film’s narrative gracefully unspools. But the end result is less a whodunit thriller than a thoughtful critique, one that resonates both regionally (paranoia and desperation are felt deeply in Iranian society) and universally (morals are often more polymorphous than we think).
If “A Separation’s” approval by the Farabi Cinema Foundation—the governing body that supervises all film productions in Iran—seems odd at first, there are two possible explanations for this. One is that Farabi has mistaken the representation of lower-class religious couple Razieh (Sareh Bayat) and Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) to be virtually wholesome compared to the bourgeois, less-religious Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami). The second explanation would suggest that Farabi’s approval process is actually somewhat more relaxed than we’ve been led to believe, which is further supported by the approval of other, more explicitly radical films (for example, Kamal Tabrizi’s “The Lizard,” a comedy involving a thief who escapes prison by impersonating a mullah).
Having a more liberal script approval policy also mollifies the government’s harsh censorship reputation. But in most cases, speculation over the organization’s guiding criteria (vague in theory, inconsistent in practice) is pointless; framing the cultural importance of a work within the ‘righteous’ taste of the Farabi validates the foundation, and suggests Iranian cinema should always be discussed in the context of the restrictions facing filmmakers. For most Iranian films, I avoid focusing any attention on censorship because there’s more important territory to be discussed—namely, the work itself.
But “A Separation” is kind of an exception. The film’s acute representation of Iranian life is a moral Rorschach test that will provoke varied interpretations from the mullahs, the Iranian community whose religious views fall on a wide spectrum of progressiveness across different faiths; Iranians inside and outside the country; non-Muslim viewers; and non-Iranian viewers. It’s all too easy to point out the systemic flaws in Iranian society so present here. Why, for instance, is Nader charged with murder instead of manslaughter for what was clearly an accident? Why is Simin unable to leave the country without her husband Nader’s permission? Why is Hodjat equally upset (if not more so) about his wife Razieh working for another man as he is over her miscarriage? The list goes on and on.
Farhadi uses the logistics of current Iranian legal processes to plot out the events that might occur were his drama to play out in real life. And with no clear winners or losers—and with character motivations that can be weighed as simultaneously ignoble and understandable, frequently resulting from a fear of God, or the law, or both—it’s almost impossible to determine for whom Farhadi is rooting. A Westerner may find themselves more attuned to the headstrong Simin’s desire to leave Iran with her daughter, because in their perspective Iran seems like a dangerous place for women to live. Similarly, a very religious Muslim will understand the devout Razieh’s apprehension in assisting an old man to undress himself (and calling an imam for approval), but this detail may bewilder Western audiences (as it certainly appears to have done, considering how frequently it’s mentioned in Western reviews).
Like so many Iranian films, generational stigmas, particularly those that effect a country’s youth, play an important role here; children offer the perfect blank canvas onto which social ideals can be imprinted. Simin and Nader’s young daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) must learn to navigate the confounding and contradictory rules of this society, which means she must also learn that truth can be flexible, even as one’s obstinacy cannot be. It’s telling that, in “A Separation’s” closing scene, when asked by a judge which parent she would like to live with, Termeh breaks down; she may have learned how to lie, how to posture, but that pressure weighs on a person as much as it does a society.
From M. Sicinski’s “A Separation” review (Cinema Scope):
… [I]n order to be selected as Iran’s submission for the Oscars, A Separation had to garner a recommendation from the nine-member Farabi Cinema Foundation, a para-governmental arts-and-culture administration. Anyone concerned about the nefarious double-dealings of the MPAA should check out the language on the Farabi website which, remember, reflects the Islamist apparatchiks at their most benign. Farabi describes itself as having saved Iranian cinema from the “mystic cinema” of “the first decade of the 80s” [sic], when “the dominating aspects of the films produced by Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov” as well as “leftist revisionists” essentially crippled the glorious cinema of Iran. (Where Is the Friend’s Home? ; The Cyclist ; The Tenants ; Canary Yellow . I think we all remember those dark days!) “Such films,” say the Farabis, “repelled the spectators mainly choosing cinema to spend one to two hours having fun.”
It’s virtually a truism that censors are too stupid for words. That’s precisely what makes them dangerous. But this is also why they can be fleeced to such productive effect; ideologues may see enemies everywhere, but this is the paranoid inverse of their true psychological condition. They tend to see their own ideas reflected in every social institution, in the supposed “heart and soul” of the people they oppress under the guise of service. If Farhadi is somehow able to make films in Iran, distribute them, and even to have political organs like the Farabi Foundation actively promote them, then this is not the result of political capitulation on the filmmaker’s part, at least so far as the evidence onscreen may serve as testimony. It is entirely possible, I suppose, that the cine-mullahs of the Islamic Republic look at A Separation’s conflict between the dissolving middle-class couple of the original title, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), on the one hand, and smugly pious lower-class Razieh (Sareh Bayat) and Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) on the other, and see a validation of humble values, an indictment of the exploitation of poor, unsophisticated Shia traditionalists by the decadent bourgeoisie. If so, Farhadi should make sure this exact panel of numbskulls assembles to approve all his subsequent work.
I make a similar argument about the open-ended nature of character motivations and moral beliefs in “A Separation” in my upcoming InRO review because I truly do believe that Sicinski is right here, that Iranian authorities may find redeemable qualities in Hodjat and Razieh which not only cancel out their faults but offer a “realistic” representation of religious Iranians that contrast with the equally-flawed, cosmopolitan, secular-by-comparison Iranians.
But I also caution against the act of speculation because institutions like Farabi offer negligible levels of transparency or consistency in their decisions. Their opinions are influenced by shifting tastes and interpretations of works previously approved by the government. A good example is Farabi’s current self-proclaimed distaste for domestic productions inspired by Tarkovskian mysticism.* According to Alberto Elena in “The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami,” the Iranian authorities once held the exact opposite position, back in the ’80s (pg. 54):
Popular entertainment films, a genre that was never questioned as long as it respected Islamic principles and values, thus commanded a significant audience share. Nevertheless, the Islamic authorities never hid their tastes and preferences, and during this same period, for example, they made considerable efforts to promote so-called ‘mystical cinema’, a local variation of the hermetic style and philosophical concerns of certain foreign directors who were respected by the regime (Tarkovski being at the top of the list).
I think the new-gen Farabis need to eat their cultural vegetables.
*Elena offers a fantastic meta-analysis of the Sufi and Persian poetry influences in “Where Is The Friend’s House?” (pgs. 72-78). He warns that the film should not be mistaken as some kind of religious project or that Kiarostami is interested in maintaining Islamic traditions and ideas. The influence is more Persian than Islamic. The concept of the journey as a form of learning, soul-seeking, and self-revelation is a leitmotif in Persian poetry that speaks to the culture’s progressive mentality. Similarly, “Friend’s House” is forward-thinking even if it is utterly depressing. Kiarostami gently points out the generational issues in Iranian society that (still) need changing.