The Nominee Who Won't Be At The Oscars Is The One Who Matters Most
Here's why Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's films are more essential than ever.
Asghar Farhadi won an Oscar in 2012 for A Separation, a drama about a couple going through a divorce. It's one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, the kind that just knocks you flat with the immensity of its understanding of human nature and how people can utterly fuck things up while trying to do what’s right.
A Separation won Best Foreign Language Film that year, but Farhadi was also up for Best Original Screenplay, a rarity for a title that’s not in English. (Woody Allen won instead.) In his acceptance speech, Farhadi spoke of what it meant to be able to depict his country, Iran, as an expression of its people rather than its leadership. “At the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics,” he said.
As far as shade against a national regime goes, Farhadi’s was articulated so delicately that portions of his speech were even broadcast on Iranian state TV, despite the film having earlier been criticized by conservative figures in the country. (It probably didn’t hurt that A Separation beat out Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, meaning that Farhadi’s win could be turned into a message of one over Israel.)
It’s that deftness that’s allowed Farhadi to continue working in Iran when many of the country’s other famous directors of art films have run up against censorship or outright banning by the government. Jafar Panahi, who has won awards at every major international film festival, was arrested in his home country and then banned from filmmaking for 20 years, while the late Abbas Kiarostami, Iran's most famous cinematic export, opted for a form of self-exile. Farhadi’s movies aren’t overtly political, but that’s only because the commentary they offer is rooted so deeply in their characters as to be inseparable from them. His is a protest carried out by showing day-to-day life in Iran as infinitely more conflicted, connected, messy, and vital than any hard-liners would have it shown.
“Hard-liners” is Farhadi’s own term, used in the statement he released earlier this week after Trump signed an executive order barring people from seven countries, one of them Iran, from entry into the US. Farhadi is up for an Oscar again this year for his new film The Salesman, but he won’t be attending the ceremony. While the star of the film, Taraneh Alidoosti, announced her intention to boycott the Academy Awards in protest, Farhadi revealed he had no previous intentions of doing the same. It was after Trump issued the travel ban that Farhadi decided that even if an exception were made for him to attend the Oscars, he would not. Instead, he sent his words, noting that hard-liners in Iran, the US, and the planet over use the same fear tactics, presenting the world as a conflict of “us” and “them.” “However,” he wrote, “I believe that the similarities among the human beings on this earth and its various lands, and among its cultures and its faiths, far outweigh their differences.”
It’s a huge loss, not having Farhadi at the Oscars, one that’s all the more jarring when you consider that he freely traveled to the US earlier in January to do press for The Salesman. It’s a loss not just for the obvious reason that it’s the result of an executive order with far-ranging and devastating implications, or that one of the great filmmakers of the world can’t come to this silly but highly visible annual ceremony to offer his statement in person. It’s a loss because no director wields empathy as powerfully as Farhadi, insistent not that you like his characters but that you understand them and why they act the way they do. Farhadi makes films that place people in conflict but that are grounded in a deep conviction about those human similarities — they refuse to let anyone be simplified into a “them.”
Five of Farhadi's films are available in the US, one, The Salesman, currently in theaters. They’re all extremely grown-up and highly watchable at the same time. They're household thrillers, in a way, ones in which a conflict erupts or a mystery is discovered in the midst of the mundane, illuminating gaps and tensions between characters due to economic status, class, religiosity, or temper. The trickiest of them all is actually the one that Farhadi got his latest Oscar nod for. In The Salesman, a woman is assaulted after she and her husband move into a new apartment. It’s the rare Farhadi movie that feels constrained by cultural mores, in terms of what can or can’t be said about what happened to its female lead, a move that surely isn’t meant as euphemism, but it feels that way.
If you’re new to Farhadi, it's best to start with one of his earlier films — like 2006’s Fireworks Wednesday, in which a newly engaged young woman has all her romantic idealism eaten away after a day submerged in the acidic home life of the wealthy marrieds who hire her to clean their apartment. Or 2009’s tremendous, tragic About Elly, in which a kindergarten teacher is invited to a weekend by the sea by the parents of one of her students, a getaway and hoped-for romantic setup that turns disastrous after someone goes missing and the party splinters in the aftermath. Or 2013’s bleakly poetic The Past, set in France, though Iran looms behind it — that’s where its main character (Ali Mosaffa) returns from in order to finalize a divorce from his estranged wife (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo), only to discover her caught in an impossible situation with a new lover (Tahar Rahim) who seems, at first, like he might have been chosen as a stand-in for her soon-to-be ex.
But it’s A Separation that’s Farhadi’s masterpiece. The film packs a timely sting with its very premise — it’s about emigration, the opening credits running over shots of passports and documents being sent through a photocopier. In A Separation’s first scene, Simin (Leila Hatami) and her husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi), are speaking to a judge but positioned to be talking directly to the camera, as if the audience were presiding over their future instead. Simin wants the family to move abroad, but now that the long, hard process of obtaining visas is complete, Nader has changed his mind and refuses to leave, not wanting to abandon his father, who’s in the later stages of Alzheimer's. Simin’s divorce petition is an all-in gambit, because while Nader is willing to let her leave, he won’t allow her to bring their 11-year-old, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), with her.
Simin and Nader are caught between a past they can’t in good conscience leave behind and a future that worries them, Simin in particular. “As a mother, I prefer that she not grow up in these circumstances,” she tells the judge. She carefully keeps silent when he asks in response, “What circumstances?” But the rest of the film can be thought of as a complicated answer to that question, especially after the arrival of Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout woman from a working-class neighborhood whom Nader hires to help care for his father, and who leads the characters into an ethical mire involving a miscarriage.
In Razieh, A Separation finds a woman pinned between economic and religious imperatives, choosing to keep her new job a secret from her husband, who wouldn’t approve, because they need the money so badly. She’s wildly uncomfortable caring for a strange man, even one as infirm as Nader’s father — when he soils himself, she calls a cleric to find out if it’s acceptable for her to clean his lower body off, or if it’s a sin. The moment itself has a tinge of the absurd, but A Separation doesn’t make a mockery of Razieh’s concerns, or of the desperate position in which she finds herself. And Simin and Nader, wealthier and more educated, aren’t let off the hook either, the bourgeois privilege they enjoy sometimes tipping into condescension.
A Separation is a drama about trying to do what’s ethical when knowing what that means is impossible. And, underlying that, it’s a testament to how difficult and painful the decision to migrate to another country is, no matter how lightly it’s portrayed by those who want to demonize it. It is an ode to how much has to be given up in leaving your home, and how having the means to leave doesn’t spare you from feeling like you are abandoning everyone you leave behind. Nader’s father is the living embodiment of the sacrifice at stake in A Separation — no longer who he was, but hardly effortlessly discarded.
In our current moment, immigration is being simplified, vilified, and denied to whole swaths of the world, making the complexity of the choice in A Separation necessary and resonant. And now, the window the film offers into different strata of Iran is all the more telling. Barring Asghar Farhadi’s presence at the Oscars, the least we can do is give attention to his work — not just for its incredible quality, but for its urgency. His films remind us of the power of art to underscore the qualities people have in common in the face of rhetoric meant to divide.