February 29, 2012

Forget “Foreign” — The Best Film of 2011 Was Made in Iran

At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy …. I proudly accept this award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilizations.

—Asghar Farhadi on accepting the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film


Giving Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation the Oscar for Best Foreign Film is a contradiction in terms. What makes the Iranian director’s picture the best I saw this year — what lifts it above The Artist and the rest of the mainstream competition — is that it is un-foreign, human, universal. It’s about us, not them.

The regime in Tehran has been steeling itself for months against the shameful prospect of yet another Western honor, this the ultimate accolade, for a film that state-run television has dismissed for depicting “the image of our society” as “the dirty picture westerners are wishing for.” Farhadi’s perceptive, unbiased, seemingly apolitical observation of the human condition — Faulkner’s “human heart in conflict with itself” — confounds attempts to tie it to a politically subversive point of view. It was also hugely popular in Iran. So the best the regime can do is disapprove of Farhadi’s “passivity.”

Farhadi did have at least one close call. In 2010, Jafar Panahi, the director of The White Balloon and The Circle, was sentenced to a six-year prison term and banned from writing or directing films for 20 years for allegedly attempting to undermine the government. When Farhadi spoke up on behalf of Panahi, the regime temporarily removed permission for production of A Separation.

More Iranian Magic

For what it’s worth from someone who has no compelling interest in Iranian cinema, the second best film I saw in 2011 was Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, his first picture made in the West with Western actors, notably Juliette Binoche. When Binoche was voted Best Actress at Cannes in 2010, she raised hackles in Tehran by tearfully dedicating the award to Jafar Panahi and writing his name in capital letters on a sign that she left on the podium, where it remained in view throughout the ceremony.

By all rights, Certified Copy and its star should have received Academy nominations in 2010 (if not 2011, the year of its American release). There’s no doubt Meryl Streep deserved the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, which I have not been able to bring myself to watch. I’m sure Streep could do wonders with Pat Nixon and Nancy Reagan and maybe even Callista Gingrich, but consider what Juliette Binoche does in a part written for her by an Iranian director. Kiarostami gives her no name, just “Elle,” presumably because he sees her as a kind of feminine ideal. Not that she’s meant to be perfect, far from it. She’s vividly French (lots of expressive gesturing and body language), a single mother with a young son who enjoys teasing her, and she lives in Italy where she runs a cavernous shop specializing in art and antiquities. During an outing to a Tuscan hilltown with James, an English writer (opera baritone William Shimell in his first film role), she does the driving; that is, she’s behind the wheel in every sense of the phrase as James becomes the dour straight man she weaves her charming, infuriating, but invariably natural and believable performance around. She also leads the way when they act out what appears to be a casual, spontaneous charade of marriage seeded with hints that they might really have a married past. Act or no act, Binoche is the real thing. She’s intelligent, sophisticated, open, guarded, flirtatious, argumentative, funny, arrogant, sweet, romantic, and cynical, and can express all those qualities — spinning like a Catherine Wheel of unbridled femininity — in the space of a single scene. For instance, the cafe sequence, where James is making an ass of himself with an indifferent waiter and either fails or obstinately refuses to appreciate her when she comes back after disappearing to “fix her face” — a moment in which the audience becomes the mirror she’s looking into as she applies lipstick, puts on earrings, and checks herself out approvingly. In that brief sequence where she’s “making herself beautiful for him” (as she frankly admits), she lends poetry to that feminine ritual.

This richly nuanced “portrait of a lady” was created by a director from a society where everything about Binoche’s character and behavior would be deemed a violation (not to mention the makebelieve marriage’s violation of reality) — where women must cover their heads, eschew makeup, and know their place.

Warring Couples

A Separation begins with a couple applying (without success) for a divorce because the wife, Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to live abroad while her husband Nader (American-born Peyman Maadi) insists on staying in Tehran with their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (beautifully played by the director’s daugter Sarina), so he can care for his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Unable to leave the country without her husband, Simin goes to stay with her family, which means that Nader has to find day care for his father. The woman he hires, Razieh (Serah Bayat), has to bring along her little daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hossieni), who in one scene tinkers with the sick man’s oxygen tank and finds that she can bring him to life by turning a knob; his eyes open, he sees her, she smiles and says “Hi.”

What sets the plot fully in motion is Nader’s outrage when he comes home to find his father in serious distress, on the floor, tied to the bed, possibly near death, with Razieh nowhere to be seen. Between that and his suspicion that she has taken some money, he fires her, and when she vehemently and tearfully protests, he shoves her out the door, she loses her balance, falling back a step or two, nothing serious — except that it seemingly provokes a miscarriage that leads to a murder charge for Nader, who didn’t know that she was pregnant. When Razieh’s hot-headed husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini, no relation to Kimia) storms into the picture, the wrangling intensifies, with both men or both couples going at it, separately or together, including a contentious reenactment of the moment on the stairway as the children, Termeh and Somayeh, look on.

Honoring A Separation with the Golden Bear as this year’s best picture, the Berlin Film Festival gave the Silver Bears for actress and actor to the ensembles for each, rightly including Sarina’s Termeh and Kimia’s Somayeh. These children sadly and sweetly bearing witness to the frantic behavior of the adults give the film a full and very necessary measure of grace and poignance. The look that passes between them toward the end of Asghar Farhadi’s picture is as likely to endure as any such moment in the best works of other “foreign” filmmakers like Federico Fellini or Satyajit Ray or Jean Renoir.

Sounding The Artist

No surprise that The Artist won the Best Picture Oscar, as well as best director for Michel Hazanavicius, Actor Jean Dujardin, and original score Loudovic Bource. Hustling Harvey Weinstein (and Uggie the dog) no doubt helped bring home the first three, but take away Bource’s extraordinary musical accompaniment and even Uggie couldn’t save the day: the audience would be gone before he had time to win it over. To be truly great, The Artist would have to live up to its title. Instead of the swashbuckling singing and dancing film star played by Dujardin, the title character would have to be a Chaplinesque director whose great swan song would be a masterpiece (think City Lights) or maybe a failed masterpiece. Even with the music, and Uggie, and its many other charms, The Artist is not in the same league with the silent films honored at the first Academy Awards in 1928, Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.

Nor is it in the same league with A Separation, which is currently playing at both the Garden and Montgomery, or with Certified Copy, a BluRay DVD of which is available at the Princeton Public Library. If you want to see other work by Farhadi and Kiarostami, as well as Panahi, and their colleagues, the library boasts a good selection of Iranian films on DVD.