According to Nacim Pak-Shiraz, author of Shi’i Islam in Iranian Cinema, finds the true significance of Oscar winning film, A Seperation, is its ability to overcome the prejudices outside and the restrictions inside Iran.
Like many films, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011) – which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film at this year’s Oscars – allows us to discuss numerous issues of the culture and society of a particular context, in this case of Iran. Like most good films, it also transcends the boundaries of cultural specificity, inviting its audiences to pause and reflect upon issues that are universal to people regardless of their context.
The Persian title, The Separation of Nader from Simin, loses many layers of meaning in its English abbreviation to A Separation. Iranian audiences already know the name of the couple separating from each other. In a sense they know what the film is about. This initial lack of suspense in storytelling is perhaps Farhadi’s nod to an older Iranian performing art of ta‘ziyeh, the enactment of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, the third Shi‘i imam. Ta‘ziyeh is considered to be the oldest and, until modern times, the only ‘Islamic drama’. In ta‘ziyeh, the audience knows the ending from the very beginning just as we know that Nader and Simin are separating even before the film has started.
A Separation is not, however, about the engagement of film with this older Iranian performing art. This reference to ta‘ziyeh in film is not exclusive to Farhadi; indeed, other Iranian filmmakers such as Bahram Beyzaie and Abbas Kiarostami have previously employed elements of ta‘ziyeh in their works far more extensively. Instead, the example of the title’s translation is mentioned here only to highlight the rich subtleties and layers of meaning that are inevitably lost in any process of translation let alone the practicalities of subtitling and the difficulties of conveying the dialogue within a set number of words and lines.
Despite the challenges of translation, A Separation has captured the imagination of many of its foreign audiences and succeeded in winning Iran’s first Academy Award. More significantly, unlike many other Iranian films that have received great acclaim in foreign festivals and Western art scenes, A Separation has also been a success within its own context, gaining third place in last year’s Iranian film charts.
Even though we might predict the story in A Separation, the events that actually lead to the separation are not anticipated. The film opens and ends with a divorce case in court. In the opening scenes, we see Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) sitting in a small courtroom, each presenting their case to the judge — whom we can only hear, because the camera has instead taken his position. This positioning of the audience in place of the judge is a playful and deliberate choice, for we discover by the end of the film that we have continually judged, re-evaluated and revised our understanding of the situation as the events unfold.
Nader and Simin are middleclass Tehranis whose dispute appears to stem from the couple’s disagreements about staying in Iran. Simin wishes to leave Iran before their immigration visa, acquired with great difficulty, expires but Nader is reluctant to leave behind his ailing father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The main dispute taken to court, however, is over their adolescent daughter, Termeh. According to Iranian law, children cannot acquire a passport or leave the country without their father’s permission. Nader has given his consent for the divorce but not for Termeh’s departure, prolonging and complicating the proceedings as Simin refuses to leave without her daughter.
With Simin having moved out of the marital home, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout Muslim woman who lives in a deprived part of the city, to look after his father and undertake some domestic chores. Most of the narrative occurs within the confines of the modest flat. As the story develops further we also enter the crowded corridors and cramped rooms of the court.
The decisions and actions of each character allow the other characters as well as the audience to form a judgement about them. They also become the means through which the characters themselves — and by extension the audience — have to face the reality of their own shortcomings, which stand in stark contrast to the idealism with which they hold themselves. However, the more we appear to get closer to the truth, the more unattainable it becomes. Like the judge overseeing the inquiry into the allegations and counter-allegations made by the characters, we too, are confused and have to continually review our understanding of the truth and the reality of the events we have witnessed. In this Iranian drama, nothing is at it seems and the subtle twists and unexpected turns within the film keep audiences transfixed for the entirety of its two hours of storytelling.
This subtle reference to the impossibility of attaining truth finds even more significance once located within the context of Iran. The impossibility of attaining the whole picture or truth by any one character, or even by us as audiences who are privy to far more insight than any one of the characters, can be read as questioning the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. A theocratic state that claims to behold, protect and enforce the ‘Truth’ upon its citizens and disregards the fallibility and, therefore, plurality of religious understanding and interpretation may well be the ultimate subject of the film’s criticism.
Many Iranian intellectuals have challenged the validity of the doctrine of ‘Velayat-e faqih’ or guardianship of the jurist, which arrogates to the Supreme Leader the power of having the final say in the running of the country. The challenge to this doctrine, which was introduced after the victory of the Islamic Republic in 1979, has not been limited to a particular section within Iranian society. Rather, from very early on it had its critics amongst a wide range of groups, including the clergy themselves. Overtime, these dissident voices have grown and become more vocal. However, those who directly challenged the ruling powers have been marginalised, silenced or forced to flee the country.
The Oscar for A Separation has undoubtedly brought great pride to a nation that usually finds itself vilified in the West. Farhadi’s achievement is significant as he succeeds in overcoming both the prejudices outside and the restrictions inside. ■
This review was initially published in Ceasefire Magazine on 4th April 2012.
Nacim Pak-Shiraz is Lecturer in Film and Persian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She is also the author of Shi’i Islam in Iranian Cinema: Religion and Spirituality in Film.