Our nation's capital isn't the only town keeping an eye on Iran this week. Hollywood is, too.
While Washington warily tries to gauge Iran's nuclear capabilities, Hollywood is anticipating a win for the Iranian film "A Separation," one of five nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign film.
Already the winner of a Golden Globe, it's an emotionally powerful work that opens as a domestic drama and ends as a harsh look at a society dangerously divided by religion and class, a film with a strong political subtext that never loses sight of its characters' individual humanity.
For critics and film scholars, "A Separation" works on many levels. "The writing is flawless, the directing is superb; it's a serious, well-crafted movie, but it isn't ever tedious. It's an audience movie," Guy Flatley of Moviecrazed.com says. "I would be very surprised if it doesn't get the Academy Award."
Basically, the plot runs as follows: Simin, a sophisticated, well-educated mother of an 11-year-old girl (played by the director's own daughter), wants to leave Tehran to offer her daughter a better life. Nader, her husband, refuses, opting to stay to care for his elderly father, who suffers from dementia. The two reach an impasse, and Simin goes to live with relatives in Tehran while her daughter stays with her father and grandfather.
Enter Razieh, whom Nader hires to care for his father. Arriving with her own young daughter and without permission to work from her husband (an uneducated, unemployed shoemaker), Razieh is conservative and religious; she has to call a mullah to gain permission to change the man's soiled pants.
When Razieh turns out to be less than reliable and the separation of Simin and Nader takes its toll, the tinderbox-readying-to-ignite frustrations and misunderstandings between the two families quickly escalate toward tragedy.
"A Separation," says Jamsheed Akrami, film professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., "shows a society in moral turmoil, where lying to get by has become a sort of modus operandi. It starts from the top and trickles down to people of all ages and classes. The clash of two families, or the male heads of families, under the guise of class warfare, represents the ongoing clash of secular and religious values, which is one of the key conflicts in contemporary Iranian society."
Director Asghar Farhadi calls his film "a detective story without any detectives," with the audience "in charge of solving the puzzles; there will be as many answers as audiences."
The main characters are women who, he says, "have made very different life choices. Both are trying to save their hide."
But he cautions against seeing the confrontation between the women as good versus bad. Rather, he said, "they are two clashing visions of good."
Western audiences, adds Farhadi, "often have a very fragmented image of the Iranian woman, whom they see as passive, homebound, far from any kind of social activity. Perhaps a certain number of women in Iran do live like that, but for the most part women are highly present and active in society, and in a much more forthright manner than men, despite the restrictions they are subjected to."
Unlike other Iranian films that reach U.S. shores, "A Separation" has been a "huge critical and commercial success in Iran," Akrami of William Paterson University says. It was competing at the box office against a government-supported propaganda film. So a popular campaign sprang up, with some people seeing the film several times to boost the box office and "show their opposition to the regime."
So will it win? Most say yes. But Richard Pena, program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City, cautions that there might be a backlash in the voting. He says he thinks it's "very strong and deserves to win" and "it's the right moment."
But there might be members of the Academy who won't vote for it, believing a "yes" vote would mean rewarding Iran's "system, seen as totalitarian and authoritarian," he said. "Or you might have people who think voting for this is a vote for peace, that say art rises above these preoccupations."