Iranian cinema has been around for a long time, dating back to the 1930s. While much of its earlier films remain inaccessible and relatively unknown to even the most well-read of film enthusiasts, many of its modern works, particularly those released from the 1990s onward, such as Close-Up (1990), Taste of Cherry (1997) and Children of Heaven (1997), have become staples of world cinema.
Into the 21st century, a newer generation of Iranian filmmakers emerged, bringing more diversity and richness to their cinema. Arguably the most prominent of them all is Asghar Farhadi. His most highly-awarded film, A Separation (2011), now available for viewing on CATCHPLAY+, will be the central focus of this piece.
I first saw A Separation at Cathay Cineleisure when the film had a limited theatrical run back in March 2012 and revisited it a year later when it was considered required viewing as part of an Asian cinema module that I took during my undergraduate days. My memories of seeing the film remain vivid till today, and I’ll share why in a bit.
But first, A Separation was quite the revelation back in the 2011-2012 period. Well, to give you a loose analogy, think of the incredible award-winning run and widespread critical acclaim of Parasite (2019), take the hype and buzz down a few notches, and then imagine it as an Iranian movie…
Granted, Iranian cinema has never in its illustrious history reached the stratospheric heights of Korean cinema insofar as popularity is concerned—though it is entirely fair to suggest that both cinemas are of similar world-class standing in terms of quality and status—but that should not diminish the remarkable achievement that A Separation brought to its country.
The records speak for themselves: the film won the Golden Bear at the highly-regarded Berlin International Film Festival and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, becoming the first Iranian movie to win these prestigious awards.
Besides, it won two Silver Bears for Best Actor and Best Actress at Berlin, which was considered an extremely rare feat in relation to its Golden Bear win, with the acting awards going to the entire ensemble lead and supporting cast, which was an even rarer occurrence. It also won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, the latter usually quite uncommon for non-English language films.
On the box-office front, it was a massive success, grossing over US$24 million worldwide with just a production budget of US$800,000. Records and accolades aside, what is most striking to me about A Separation is this: despite its Middle Eastern setting and context, the characters and the social and family issues that they face are not dissimilar to what people might experience in other (more liberal) countries. So, yes it may be in Persian, but the film is very universal.
With A Separation, Farhadi has observed his society with the keenest of eyes. Eyes that are not tainted by personal biases or the fear of being censored by the highly conservative Iranian government. Eyes that help to illuminate the conflicts as caused by ‘separation’, and as faced by not only Iranians but everyone who is essentially human.
The theme of ‘separation’ is dealt with as if through a prism, with one event as the focal point—that of an impending divorce between a couple whose child must decide on who to follow. This particular event shapes the entire film, as each subsequent incident or conflict following it gives rise to a myriad of issues that intertwine with each other such as religion, finances, the pursuit of truth, and the fear of retribution.
Lies and webs of deceit are spun, yet Farhadi is not so much interested in the truth that his characters are searching in others as well as within themselves, but the truth of life, that life is often a bed of wilted roses, that life is always unpredictable.
With A Separation, Farhadi joins the ranks of such renowned Iranian filmmakers as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and many more, in a collective quest to bring Iran to the world through the artistic medium of cinema, enlightening a multinational audience, while at the same time, finding one’s own cultural identity amid the dust of politics, discrimination, and restrictions.