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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"A Separation" shows, um, downsides of living in Iran

After seeing the critically lauded Iranian film A Separation a couple of weeks back, my first thought was about where it would rank on my Top 10 list for 2011. My second thought was that I couldn't believe writer/director Asghar Farhadi wasn't rotting in some Tehran dungeon for the manner in which his film depicts everyday life in Iran — namely, with apparent accuracy.

Instead, this riveting drama is Iran's official submission for Best Foreign Film(!) and, after Sunday's deserving win at the Golden Globes, the odds-on favorite to win an Oscar. Just the fact that the movie was allowed to be released overseas at all tells me that the mullahs who run things over there don't have any grasp of how fucked-up their country and culture would appear to non-Muslim outsiders.

My colleague Curt is working on an actual review of A Separation, so I won't try to steal his thunder. Instead, I wanted to briefly discuss the film's warts-and-all portrayal of contemporary Persian society. It's no spoiler to reveal that the movie opens with a married couple seated before a judge; the wife, Simin, seeks a divorce from Nader so she can take their teenage daughter Termeh to grow up abroad. Why, the judge asks, what's wrong with Iran? Simin doesn't answer. But the rest of the movie illustrates can be seen as an argument for her position.

At first glance, the couple seem to have things pretty good; they have professional jobs, a decently furnished apartment, and two cars. But, as the movie unfolds, we witness some disturbing aspects of this theocratic society.

• A devout woman who's been hired by Nader to house-sit his elderly father calls her imam to check whether it would be sinful to help the old man change out of soiled clothes.

• Nader has to explain why he hired the house-sitter without first asking her husband's permission.

• One character is unable to show up for work because he keeps getting thrown into debtor's prison.

• The court hearings in which Nader is embroiled during the movie's second half show a legal system right out of the 19th century, including witnesses attempting to give testimony to a judge while being contradicted and threatened by the defendants and/or plaintiffs. And even though Nader faces serious criminal charges, it's all based on unsworn accusations, with no police work or evidence-gathering involved.

In short, A Separation proves a fascinating window into a deeply dysfunctional society in which women can do little without a man's approval, the legal system is a joke, and disputes are settled by payments of "blood money." But the movie is so matter-of-fact in its treatment of these issues that a Western viewer can only assume the Iranian government decided the movie presented a fair picture of life in Tehran, which is scary in itself.

Certainly, our own country has plenty of flaws and enough social ills to horrify more progressive visitors. But I would submit that any society based on the premise that women should be treated as second-class citizens is behind the eight ball from the get-go.

A Separation opens in Atlanta on Feb. 10.

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