An Iranian film-maker is making waves with an intimate portrayal of a family's difficulties, which, as our reporter finds, is likely to alter perceptions of the Islamic republic
A SEPARATION is a film about a young couple whose marriage is in trouble. The wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), moves out, leaving him to care for his elderly father, who has Alzheimer's, and to look after their 11-year-old daughter, who has to show him how the washing-machine works. The husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi), helps his daughter with her schoolwork but hires a woman to look after his father.
It doesn't sound extraordinary, yet this riveting new film set in Tehran, capital of Iran, is one that will make you re-examine everything you thought you knew about the Islamic Republic.
What we see is a middle-class family grappling with familiar problems in a more or less familiar setting. What is less familiar is the additional challenges created by a strict Islamic society. But for those viewers who expect Iranian films to be either crudely polemical or impenetrably poetic, A Separation will be a real eye-opener. This is not a strange and alien world of politically freighted parables, like so many of the Iranian films that are distributed in the West: it is an everyday family drama in which the exoticism gives an added zest.
"It is probably easier for an Iranian audience to establish a complete relationship with the film," says the director, Asghar Farhadi. "Yet at the heart of the story is a married couple. Marriage is a relationship between two human beings, unrelated to the period or society in which it is set."
Farhadi pretty much swept the prize board at the Berlin Film Festival this year, nabbing the Golden Bear for Best Film and the Best Actor and Actress awards. Already a hit in France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy requested a special screening, and an early tip for this year's Foreign Language Oscar, A Separation looks like Farhadi's breakout.
The director's first three films won't ring any bells for most people, despite having featured on the European festival circuit. His last one, About Elly, was shown at the 2009 London Film Festival but didn't have a commercial release here. A Separation clearly moves him up a league, and the real reason for going to see it is not that it's Iranian but that it's a rattling good film, excitingly paced, superbly edited and full of the kind of moral conundrums that Hollywood can no longer be bothered to explore.
Described as almost Hitchcockian by one critic, it's a moral fable that builds up all the pressure of a classic whodunit in an unusually grown-up way until it becomes edge-of-the-seat stuff. I'd be surprised if you didn't leave the cinema arguing about the outcome. Which is just what Farhadi wants. "I believe the world today needs more questions than answers," he says. "Answers prevent you from thinking."
In the film, faced with the almost impossible challenge of looking after a young daughter and a senile father, husband Nader hires a devout young woman (Sareh Bayat), who has to check with religious advisers whether it is acceptable for her to help the old man wash himself. But Farhadi doesn't poke you in the ribs here and say: "See how repressive Islam is." Instead, he takes the rules as given for his characters and shows people creating lives for themselves within them.
"Western audiences often have a very fragmented image of Iranian women, whom they see as being passive, homebound, far from any kind of social activity," says Farhadi. "Perhaps a certain number of women in Iran do live like that, but for the most part they are highly present and active in society. Both kinds of women are present in the film, without either being condemned or proclaimed a heroine. They are simply two clashing visions of good. And that is where, in my opinion, modern tragedy resides."
In addition to presenting a domestic tragedy (the final shot is heartbreaking), A Separation also gives an insight into the Iranian legal system that will be a revelation to anyone who missed Kim Longinotto's superb 1998 documentary, Divorce Iranian Style. The judge in the movie is forthright, open and argumentative, giving everyone a chance to speak, questioning them all robustly but fairly, and is keen to get at the truth.
Just like the film, in fact, which Farhadi was allowed to shoot in real locations – apartments, streets, courtyards, hospitals, schools – with the exception of the courtroom scenes (the sets had to be built in an abandoned schoolhouse).
Like any good crime story, the plot hinges on an event which happens half an hour or so into the running time. I'm not going to spoil it by telling you what it is (actually, we don't see it that clearly anyway), but everything that happens from then depends on this one ambiguous moment, making it a whodunit without a clear answer.
So if you see one just foreign-language film this summer, there is good reason to make it A Separation.
• A Separation is showing at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, from Friday, and Glasgow Film Theatre and Dundee Contemporary Arts from 8 July.