Iranian masterpiece soars above Western contenders
Back in February, at the annual Academy Awards, something extraordinary took place. With political tensions running high between the United States and Iran and against a backdrop of decades-long animosity between the two countries, an Iranian feature was given the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for the first time. The film is called A Separation and is screening throughout New Zealand. I saw it last week at Hamilton's Lido cinema.
The gesture might seem magnanimous to those who have yet to experience what is undoubtedly one of the cinematic masterpieces of the century. However, for the so-called "liberal" academy to recognise excellence in its nation's enemies isn't entirely unprecedented – the Soviets justly won a few gongs during the Cold War – and given the qualitative gulf between A Separation and other films vying for awards, the Iranian movie was actually short-changed. I would count myself as a rabid Woody Allen fan but even I can see the injustice inherent in his slight if entertaining fantasy, Midnight in Paris winning an original screenplay Oscar over a drama of depth and sophistication. You would hope the fact that Woody is a Jew and A Separation's writer/director Asghar Farhadi a Persian had little to do with this decision.
As excellent as Midnight in Paris is on its own terms, it fits within a wider nostalgic trend that ran through almost all of the better reviewed English language films of last year. From the charming French silent The Artist to Martin Scorsese's homage to pioneer Georges Melies, from Steven Spielberg's appallingly trite World War I children's film War Horse to the worthy, anti-segregationist tract The Help, Hollywood looked to the past. Even Moneyball and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close examined recent history while controversial Palm d'Or winner Tree of Life struggled to reconcile its murky, cosmic goings-on with an excellent recreation of 1950s malaise.
Of all the films nominated for Best Picture the only one that took on contemporary issues was Alexander Payne's The Descendants. A comparison between it and A Separation is more worthwhile than you might think, for the two films have quite a lot in common. Both deal with marital disharmony in the middle class. Both feature an accidental death that serves as dramatic catalyst, forcing characters to re-evaluate their lives and values systems. Both are centred on a relationship between a loving, if distant, father and a young daughter on the verge of womanhood.
The slickness of The Descendants sets it apart. Or should I say its obvious slickness. While George Clooney has never had a leading role that offers such screen time and audience sympathy, his star power is a double-edged sword. We are aware of his "excellent acting" at every turn. By Payne's high standards the film doesn't cut all that deep and its feel-good resolution is something of a cop-out. There is neither the social satire of early work like Citizen Ruth nor the painful emotional content of the writer/director best feature, Sideways.
By contrast A Separation is gripping from the first frame to the last. The opening confessional, overlapping monologues to camera recall Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage as a late 30-something couple plead directly to a judge for the right to divorce. Whatever else the film does, it provides insight into an Iranian judicial system where lawyers are scarce on the ground. Folk represent themselves before an overworked jurist and have precious little right of appeal.
As unfortunate as this might be when trying to adjust your domestic arrangements or flee the country when you are charged with murder, the consequences of a misstep can be fatal.
Like all great humanist films, A Separation's universal appeal is grounded in its cultural specifics. The social and religious rules governing interaction between the sexes might be particular to Iran but conflict between men and women within marriage, the tension between loyalty to one's parents and the responsibility toward offspring and ultimate moral questions that pit the truth against expediency are issues faced the world over.
In a Western society conditioned to think of Iran in a particular way, it is a revelation to discover that its people dream the same dreams and face the same challenges as the rest of us. If Iranians are burdened by politicians even more blinkered and stupid than our own, hopefully they can find some small solace in the vast superiority of their national cinema.