When you think of the cinema of Iran these days, it’s most likely because of the government’s persecution of its filmmakers. Jafar Panahi, for instance, has been sentenced to six years’ imprisonment and banned from making films for 20. So while it’s disappointing prior to interviewing writer-director Asghar Farhadi to be told he won’t answer any “political questions”, you can understand his trepidation. Farhadi is quite the tall poppy.
His film A Separation has been nominated for two Oscars – Best Foreign Film and Best Original Screenplay – and has won awards everywhere from Berlin to Melbourne to the Golden Globes. So much adulation has been heaped upon this little naturalistic drama that watching it is at first slightly anticlimactic – until its moral weight starts to loom.
Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a bourgeois Tehran couple whose marriage has split over the issue of emigration. Simin wants to find a better life abroad; Nader feels obliged to stay behind to look after his senile father. With Simin staying at her mother's, Nader hires a pregnant nurse, Razieh (Sareh Beyat), to look after the old man, resulting in a dispute that reveals some of the fault lines of Iranian society over class, pride, gender and faith.
“This is not a political film,” Farhadi tells Time Out through an interpreter. “The subject of the film is mankind, so anyone in the world can understand it equally.”
And yet some startling differences about life in the Islamic Republic become apparent when Nader’s father wets his pants and his deeply religious caregiver has to phone her imam to check if it’s a sin or not to change him. “This is the one big difference between the classes,” Farhadi says. “The poorer people are attached to the traditions of the past and the middle class is looking forward to the future.
“The poor believe the middle class are holding them back, and vice versa. There’s a schism between the classes that is not obvious in Iranian society.”
The resentments spark a lawsuit, and Farhadi shows us the low-key labyrinth that is the sharia court system, while being careful to keep us guessing as to who might be in the right. “I did a lot of research in the courts,” he says. “I saw a lot of things and my feeling is that both sides are often in the right. The conflicts were very often not between good and bad, but between good and good.”
Apolitical or no, it's remarkable that a film tackling explosive subjects such as Islam and the law was allowed to be made without much government interference. (Production was briefly halted in 2010 when Farhadi was quoted speaking out in support of Panahi.) “In the Iranian government there are many different people,” Farhadi says, diplomatically. “Some are open-minded and they like [the film]. Some are small-minded, and they don’t.”
Screens from 1 Mar
Sign up to our monthly film newsletter