On Sunday night, the Oscars ceremony was more nostalgic than ever as it tried to stave off declining interest by invoking the Magic of the Movies. Fittingly, the night's big winners, The Artist and Hugo, were nostalgic odes to the bygone days when more people went to movies.
Even the Kodak Theatre is no more, with the digital-age bankruptcy of the company that was synonymous with film for 100 years. But far, far away from this stumbling industry, there are still people who make movies not to further licensing agreements or to stoke self-serving nostalgia but to tell their stories.
Such is the case with A Separation, the freshest, most deserving feature film that the Academy recognized all night. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, A Separation comes from the great filmmaking nation of Iran and, at the outset, it wears its cinematic DNA on its sleeve. The film opens with a long shot of a married couple facing the camera and speaking to an unseen magistrate. We learn that the woman, in her mid-30s, is trying to get a divorce. The judge wants to know the reason: Is your husband abusive, unfaithful or improvident? None of these things, the woman, Simin, replies. Her husband Nader is a good man. It turns out that Simin has obtained, with great difficulty, an exit visa. She wants Termeh, the couple's 11-year-old daughter, to grow up in a freer society. But Nader won't consent to the move because he needs to care for his father, who is in an advanced state of dementia.
It's a complex and painful family situation, and we're only in the first 10 minutes. Additional developments will put the film on an even more difficult course: Prior to moving out, Simin hires Razieh, a desperately poor woman, to perform housekeeping duties in her absence. Complicating matters is Razieh's underemployed husband, an unstable, violent personality.
Abetted by a fine cast, especially an excellent female trio of Leila Hatami as Simin, Sareh Bayat as Razieh and Sarina Farhadi as Termeh, the film takes us on a knotty trip through domestic, criminal and religious law, as well as basic decency, with a tasteful dollop of whodunit thrown in. It depicts a struggle between, and within, an educated, secular, middle-class family and a poor, pious and angry one. What's impressive about A Separation is something that seems to elude most Hollywood screenwriters: As much as this film is a clash between at least six points of view, no one is entirely in the wrong, or proceeding from selfish or evil motives. In Iran as elsewhere, justice is measured out on scales.
But this isn't to say the story is entirely universal. It's also a portrait of a divided Iran: women separated from men, the poor separated from the upper classes, the religious separated from the secular. It's a combustible mix, but like so many other masterworks from that nation, it also asserts the humanity of its people.
Lurking in the background of A Separation is a government that oppresses its people and seems to persist in inviting threats of violence from the United States and Israel. It's also one that continues to incarcerate Jafar Panahi, one of its greatest filmmakers (lesser-known figures are also persecuted). In December, the regime closed the House of Cinema, the country's largest professional filmmaking organization. It's unclear whether the accolades for Iranian filmmakers will persuade the regime to support the country's greatest cultural ambassadors or to continue to regard the acclaim as a Western plot to embarrass the country.
Seeing A Separation won't solve these problems, nor should seeing it be considered an act of political solidarity. Instead, it's an act of cinematic solidarity. The magic of the movies, even.