The Iranian drama A Separation has popped up on more than a few critics' lists of the best films of 2011, despite little exposure in the U.S. thus far. It will open in limited release December 30, and as Howie Movshovitz of Colorado Public Radio reports on Friday's Morning Edition, it serves as both a family drama and a piece of social observation about life in Iran.
Writer and director Asghar Farhadi, speaking through a translator, explains that A Separation hinges on a question that a judge asks a woman who wants to take her 11-year-old daughter to live a more "modern" life outside the country, against the father's wishes: "'What are the conditions that [mean] you don't want to live here and you don't want to raise your children here?' The film tries to give an explanation of the question that was asked by the judge."
That question turns out to involve deep differences in matters of class, religion, and modernity versus tradition. "This is a very natural phenomenon in any society that is about to leave the traditional lifestyle and enter modern life," Farhadi says. "It's dangerous when these two groups enter a war zone with each other instead of getting into a dialogue."
In the report, Movshovitz also speaks to Hamid Naficy, who's written extensively about Iranian cinema and who teaches film at Northwestern University, about the way the increasingly complex and difficult family circumstances Farhadi depicts shed light on a certain "duality of culture" (as Naficy calls it). Within that duality, he says, "publicly people seem to abide, but privately, everybody is defying in one way or another all the rules and regulations, whether these are rules and regulations of the state, or that of family, or that of schools, or that of workplace, so everybody's trying to get ahead. It's a 'survival of the fittest' kind of environment. And I think Farhadi shows the human face of that, but also hints at the tragic consequences of it."
Naficy also speaks about the way the tight camera angles, limited physical spaces, and limited lighting enhance what he calls the "cauldron environment" in which the family in the story is living.
Naturally, Farhadi is aware that his brand of social observation may not be universally welcomed by officials, but he sees it as a risk that he takes to pursue the work he wants to do, and he draws an analogy to other activities that might carry risks: "I think when anyone steps into a car and decides to drive, they can't be sure whether or not they'll be safe. So far, I haven't had an accident."