As fate would have it, Tina Hassannia’s new book on vanguard Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, comes just weeks after Cinema Guild’s announcement that it will be handling the domestic release of Farhadi’s 2009 film, “About Elly,” which never received proper distribution in the United States, even after winning the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as being selected as the official Iranian submission for the 2010 Academy Awards.
The book, titled “Asghar Farhadi: Life and Cinema,” provides a thorough examination of the sociocultural and ideological nuances of Farhadi’s films, and it includes an exclusive interview with the celebrated filmmaker himself.
In order to give us a better sense of Hassannia’s approach, The Critical Press provided Indiewire with an exclusive excerpt from the book, in which Hassannia provides an ideological deconstruction of Farhadi’s 2011 film, “A Separation;” carefully balancing her own theoretical considerations with real-life context.
“Asghar Farhadi: Life and Cinema” is currently available for purchase via The Critical Press site. Check out the full excerpt below:
“A Separation” is Asghar Farhadi’s magnum opus, a sui generis in his oeuvre, Iranian cinema, and indeed within the larger history of cinema itself. The production catapulted the filmmaker to a high degree of mainstream international acclaim and affected the political tensions between Iran and the West at a time of high tension. Its significance as a globalizing cultural product that updated the world’s blurry image of Iran should be neither underestimated nor forgotten.
“. . . ‘A Separation’ is a fine account of Iran’s predicament; anyone interested in the mysteries of change and tradition—the difficulties faced by many people as they try and reconcile themselves to modern values and norms—will learn much from it,” wrote one anonymous writer for The New York Review of Books.
The work continued Farhadi’s examination of the plurality of moral perspectives within a society entangled between modernity and tradition. But here, formally and narratively, Farhadi reached an aesthetic zenith. Here, more distinctly and clearly than in his other films, Farhadi demonstrates the problematic dynamics separating different classes, genders and generations. The film never favors one character over another—the religiously devout Razieh and her hot-tempered husband Hodjat are as relatable as the ostensible protagonist of the film, Nader. It’s fair to say that everyone in this film is prone to making mistakes—decisions they believe are right in the heat of the moment—and though the film begs us to judge them for it, we strangely find ourselves unable to do so.
The forms of identification shown in “A Separation” are static like the composition of the shot; the information they provide belongs to a governmental and legal system that is immutable, predefined, and basic, unlike the amorphous nature of the characters in the film. The printer makes copies of the documents as if cloning the individuals of the film, but their pictures and legal statuses remain identical. In the reality of the film, the characters change and each new “version” of themselves becomes a different person with new ideas and perspectives. For example, though Simin does not actually want to separate from Nader (despite claiming to), her opinion of him changes throughout the course of the film.
This credits sequence shows us the sanctified and tangible representation of the law, with its black-and-white parameters of the truth and its black-and-white photographs of citizens. The static nature of these legal documents provide a striking visual contradiction to what the film will eventually unearth on a thematic level. The film is ultimately an exploration about the murky phenomenon of determining the truth in legal matters, the nebulous nature of morality, and the multitude of opinions and ideas that can be simultaneously correct and just. The straightforward and austere presentation of these legal documents at the commencement of the film is an ironic presentation of the characters they represent.
The film moves from showing head shots of a married couple from another of Farhadi’s films—Morteza and Mojdeh from Fireworks Wednesday, to be exact—to the real, flesh-and-blood faces of Nader and Simin. Within a medium-close-up frame, the two characters face the camera as if the viewer him- or herself is the judge. Evidently, this camera setup was deliberate: “We are also the judge. We will reach a verdict during the movie by following their story,” claims Farhadi in the DVD audio commentary of the film.
This equation of the viewer as judge may seem like a simple visual device, yet its execution is necessitated by the film’s major thematic undertones, as noted by Adam Nayman: “The direct address of this opening puts us in the same position as the magistrate, presenting us with two people and their respective lines of reasoning, and begging our observation and observance, if not our outright judgment. This is an apt overture for a film that is explicitly about how slippery the onus of interpretation can be—especially when all parties involved would seem to have a pretty good case.”
This faultless nature extends through to every decision every character makes—even the more morally dubious ones. Even their “gestures, manners, habits, turns of speech, turns of thoughts, styles of face” are “morally expressive,” according to Joseph Burke, and the intuitive, roaming eye of the handicam nimbly captures each and every detail. Beginning with this strong stalemate between Nader and Simin, the film boldly asserts its thesis about the complexity of moral relativism early on. There is nothing inherently wrong with Simin wanting to emigrate for the prosperity and future of her child; the same applies to Nader’s devotion to his father. Within minutes, the film has challenged the viewer with a tangible Iranian experiment in utilitarianism. The viewer is asked to contemplate the situation as if it’s their own: Should you jeopardize your child’s future or disrespect the man who raised you by abandoning him in his final days? Do you settle for the just-barely-acceptable “circumstances” in Islamic Iran, in order to take care of a man who doesn’t even recognize his own son? Who is more important— Termeh, their 11-year-old daughter, or Nader’s elderly father? To put it symbolically: what is more important—the past or the future?
There is no correct answer to these questions; even if viewers are wont to subconsciously choose a side. Western viewers, for example, may be more tempted to side with Simin because they may project onto Iran an image of its living conditions as being impoverished and a miserable place for youth, particularly women. Yet ultimately, even with such biases, the viewer will find it impossible not to sympathize on some deep level with the other side.
The film’s domestic reception oscillated between national pride and utter contempt. The year before “A Separation” premiered, Farhadi’s public remarks supporting dissident filmmakers Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi were taken seriously by the government and officials delayed the film’s production. After revoking his comments and issuing an apology— Farhadi claimed he had been misinterpreted—the government lifted the ban on his film. The domestic release was as successful as its international reception, and Iran submitted “A Separation” as its best foreign language film contender for the 84th Academy Awards, which it won—the first Iranian film to do so, sixteen years after “The White Balloon” had received Iran’s sole other nomination. The film was also nominated for best screenplay at the Oscars, and garnered a whopping 79 awards and 26 other nominations after its international releases. The film was the first to win three Bears at Berlinale and the first Iranian film to win a Golden Globe. The film was a huge commercial success for Farhadi—the most profitable Iranian film in history—amassing 20 million dollars worldwide. “A Separation” appeared on numerous year-end critics polls, with many—including Roger Ebert—naming it “the best film of 2011.”
It was the first Iranian film to have such a wide-ranging and resounding cultural impact on the image of Iran, and though Farhadi resisted descriptions that “A Separation” was some kind of complete cross-section of Iranian society—a film-cum-encyclopedia that could teach people about how everything works in the country—he inversely did become a cultural ambassador of sorts, a move he politicized in both his Golden Globe and Oscars speeches, sincerely describing his people “who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.” It’s easy to describe Farhadi as a secularist whose disdain for the Iranian government is perfectly shielded—his speeches and several interview responses differentiate between his fellow citizens and the government on purpose—yet even though his beliefs creep in from time to time (and in some cases, have forced him to retract his comments), one can barely blame an artist for being forced to walk on such an unwieldly tightrope.