03/12/2012 06:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cinema As Diplomacy, Pt. 1: Oscar/Globe-Winner Asghar Farhadi Screening Series In NYC!

At the New York Film Festival, three instant classics of engagé cinema -- one from Egypt and two from Iran (including BFF Oscar-winner A Separation) -- quite stunningly took on the weight of history.

Achmadinejad & The Imprisonment of Al Hazan, or, An Exuberant Fan's Post-Screening Notes

From the confines of house arrest, through a divorce drama, to the living, breathing expanse of the literal Arab street, engagé cinema is most hearteningly alive and well, as the fight-or-flight reflex is channeled into an optic polemic, serving notice to unbending power-holders that light, which does bend, always, eventually, finds its mark.

And here on the bending of light we need take a rich pause, afforded as we are with an opportunity to consider the millennial anniversary of the imprisonment of Al Hazan, a father of modern optics from the former Persia, now Iran, who feigned madness in order to be placed under house arrest (and thus spared execution) after failing to deliver on his promise to turn back and control river tides, as perhaps this lesson in hubris extends to any and all governments denying the strong current-stirs of millions of human hearts, overlooking how inorganic re-channeling creates a tidal bore.

Whereas Al Hazan feigned madness to incur house arrest, in This Is Not A Film, optical philosopher and filmmaker Jafar Panahi preserves his sanity under house arrest by filming a terrific self-co-portrait with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (who is now also under arrest), while in A Separation, Asghar Farhadi puts into practice the very proof of Al Hazan's hypothesis that a direct strike by an object slung in a perpendicular angle at a piece of paper covering a hole in a wall would leave a visible tear, but a strike by the same object from the same distance, with the same force, slung at an obtuse angle (more than 90 degrees and less then 180 degrees) would leave no tear from which to trace its impact. In Egypt, with Tahrir, Stefano Savona creates one of a million visual records for a first-draft of history, his camera caught in the tidal bores which were created by -- and are now washing away -- a 38-year tyrannical modality propped up by long-standing global mutual death-grips, the replacement of which is now making for a fascinating and complex Hegelian shift.

And thus is it eminently worth noting very clearly, that, (to borrow a phrase from Moneyball) the first one through the wall always gets bloodied. Ergo, "A filmmaker must find his language" Asghar Farhadi, the director of A Separation, patiently told me with wizened eyes, aware that his answer would not be satisfactory, as is a director's right, when I asked him at the New York Film Festival about what he would hope a society would take away from this film. He followed-up this response, adding: " I don't want to reveal too many of my secrets, or I can't use them again"

A Separation, or, This Is What Theocracy Looks Like

Simply put, A Separation is a tough-love valentine to a great nation and society by a total patriot declaring, or rather, simply recognizing a creative independence, transcendent of censor and politics in its micro-indictment of human behavior under various levels of duress, amidst limited options within the dictates of a changing nation and society.

The themes and moral dilemmas in this film are universally revelatory to our own lives, our own character, and not by way of pandering. In fact, A Separation could certainly be made in any country, the only requirement being that the director realizing the masterful script possess the same existential love for his characters and their problems of the heart as Farhadi -- for it is here principally, primarily, and above all, where the vital impulse of this film emanates, and it does so without the burden of sentimentality, nor the presumption of political dogma.

Although a divorce is the event around which everything else is built (as it were), A Separation is actually, despite its title, a tale of interconnectedness. Farhadi's drama manifests a sober, illusion-free empathy, depicting the lives of two couples, one solidly bourgeois, the other just scraping by; their children: a seemingly passive, but deeply thoughtful young middle school-aged bourgeois girl coming into her own realizations; a poor grade school-aged girl, the final remaining innocent who, despite having the most to lose, maintains an optimism, the possible, eventual loss of which would be telling for a future society.

A Separation is essentially -- but infinitely more than -- a morality play. Farhadi is a master storyteller and visual poet, possessed of an integrity and scrupulosity that assuredly drive this film. Under his tight control, the film maintains the brisk pace of a teleplay, not unlike last year's Oscar-winning chronicle-of-a-litigation, The Social Network (which I still hate). The visual poetry is derived not from the cinematography (which is tight, clean) per se, but rather the endless visual details of the set and production design, which make A Separation pregnant (as it were) with, Farhadi's hide-in-plain-sight telegraphing which never veers into the crass, nor the literal.

Through an omnipotent camera, we are privy to a series of contextually forgivable acts which nonetheless amount to tragedy -- including a routine, workaday bit of business, namely one man's denial of a bank loan to another man whose subsequent arrest and placement in debtor's prison prevent him from replacing his wife, who happens to work for the man denying him the loan, and who, per Shariah law, can no longer care for his helpless father.

As this all ripples and overspills, Farhadi's cinematic humanism -- again, in the service of first-rate drama, cinema, not polemic -- probes fundamental questions of civil society: secular and religious cultures; gender relations; labor law; childcare; the working poor; care for the elderly; the credit and banking system; women's rights; the raising of a generation in the twenty-first century. All of which sound more like a stump speech, but as their squabble escalates tragically, then plays out against a hair-trigger litigious system in which every act has potential legal repercussions and risk of incarceration, like in a 19th-century Russian novel, we are given additional perspective, in what amounts to a lesson in global civics, as we watch a court official trying to synthesize it all, walking a most fascinating line.

Farhadi and his team have mastered a kind of cinematic line built on a trinity of lean, muscular writing, copious rehearsal, and well-staged direction/filming, making for a hypnotically naturalistic but stealthily paced story-telling which elicits pensive, absorbed faces, such as were in evidence during the screening I attended. There is an almost television-esque level of viewer intimacy here, perhaps because it is shot almost entirely indoors. A Separation builds to full-blown tragedy without Greek chorus moments; instead a hand-held camera moves at the speed of thought and reaction, with the occasional revelatory, at times surprising flashback -- which is to say that Farhadi's is a realistic universe of terrible mistakes, rendered almost like a Petri dish of moral dilemmas, choice and consequence and above all, truth, and the tragedy its absence means for human co-existence. By way of my own limited reference points, at times I was almost waiting for him to inter-cut scenes of laboratory animals à la Mon Oncle D'Amerique - which is not to say that there is anything clinical, nor derivative about this exceptional film, which, along with Miss Bala made for two of the biggest surprises I experienced at this year's NYFF (though there will be many, many moons before I ever experience something like The Turin Horse, and you can read my review of that stone-cold classic film HERE)

Although it is the only non-documentary of the three films (and despite the accomplishments of the other films) from the title to the end, in its transition from noun to verb and adverb, A Separation depicts an inestimably wide, daily reality somewhere between the streets of Tahrir and the house-as-jail of This Is Not A Film. We are never so honest as when we are play-acting, and Farhadi is that rare breed of truly honest play-actor.

In my favorite sequence, the pregnant woman hired to clean the divorcing couples' house, gently hugs her young daughter (for whom she can't afford a babysitter, making everyday "take your daughter to work day"), inviting her to listen to her sibling-to-be -- and just as the daughter is feeling the baby kick inside her mother, a senile old man emerges in the background, practically like death itself, serving up a multifaceted metaphor in its juxtaposition of an emerging life-form, and an older generation on the brink of death. Later in the film, when the little girls turns off (or up?) the old man's oxygen pump, he comes to, gasping for life, in a hysterically funny, total Punk-rock moment, reminding me of another great pull-the-plug scene, in Airplane!, while seeing the cleaning woman call a Shariah law expert to ask if she can change the pants of the old man after he wet himself reminded me of this cartoon from The Village Voice.

In fact, I would note that much in the same way 1984, or The Handmaiden's Tale demonstrates the logical extensions of control, A Separation wisely and humanely looks at similar challenges. (I was also even reminded mildly of Kramer Vs Kramer and some of the light it shed on American women).

One of the things we essentially have in A Separation, and this is how I put the question to the director, is a universe in which women are second-class citizens, yet serve as the crucial bridgers: lest we think this is an unfamiliar terrain exclusive to a theocrcay, check the plot of almost any American sitcom and you'll find the same, only with more deeply-veiled (as it were) albeit, often scantily-clad semiotics and a laugh-track. In one of the film's great paradoxes, after the cleaning woman is told by the Shariah hotline she calls that she can't change the clothing of a man who's urinated on himself, she secures the job for her husband, yet has to keep private from him the fact that she was working at all, lest she risk a beating.

We also get a portrait of a man trying to look after his senile father, whilst regularly deprogramming his daughter of the Arabic being taught in school (the perhaps-telling words "desert", "infertile", "rebellion", are what we hear him translating for her). Peyman Maadi assumes his character's conscience totally, as he weaves between tenderness and stratagem -- one of my favorite visual meditations emerged later in the film, when we see him driving his car, peering through a windshield broken by the cleaning woman's husband, its spider-web leading to a gaping hole, reminding of Shirley Feeney, reciting Walter Scott: "Oh what tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive".

And when he gives extra pocket-money to his daughter who, for the moment, is staying with him as she decides which parent she will live with permanently, we see a possible co-option beyond simply a parent buying his kid's affection during a split-up, but also perhaps signifying the co-opting of a generation, and reminding me of the young man whose parents corrupt him when he tries to redeem himself in the Argentine parable about getting over on the past, No Return, from last year's Latin Beat screening series, or the young man corrupted by his crooked politician father in Whatsoeverly from the Open Roads: Italian Cinema Now series, all of which remind me that we are in a kind of cinematic global memory-jog as filmmakers reminds us of things we'd just as soon forget, delivering a kind of societal check-up, in which we as virtual doctors get to see, and react along with, the patient undergoing the filmmaker's probing of the corpus civilis.

His is certainly not the only deception in the film (and it is for you, dear viewer, to discover each twist and turn for yourself) and it is perhaps Farhadi's sense that only he without sin can cast the first stone which makes this film so incredibly humane as it begs for relief for its increasingly trapped characters, who, irrespective of the system they live in, still have their conscience to answer to.

And on the subject of having our consciences to answer to, I'll note that official greenlighting of the sharing of this cultural gift with the rest of the world by Ahmadinejad, Khamenei and their advisors constitutes a proud boast, which is of course, always a sign of good will, insofar as boasting is inherently an act of acceptance-seeking, and so I commend the Iranian government in their support of this film and for their role as cultural ambassadors, and I believe that this is a building block; perhaps Iran should host a new film festival.

Looking at my own country, A Separation revisits an opportunity missed in 2001, when Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was denied a visa, prompting NYFF director Richard Peña to note: "It's a terrible sign of what's happening in my country today that no one seems to realize or care about the kind of negative signal this sends out to the entire Muslim world."

Another important statement was delivered this year in the blink of an eye at The Golden Globes, when Farhadi declared nervously, voice quivering, (in a super-short, near Webby-length acceptance speech) amidst the clanking of glasses, that his people, the Iranian people, are peaceful people, providing an urgent citizen-to-citizen counter-balance which should serve as diplomacy, given the current crisis which we are allowing to be escalated by those bearing the title "diplomat". Yet another missed opportunity came during the NYFF, when filmmaker Nadav Lapid's Skype interview was cut short due to internet difficulties, though he did speak long enough to mention how very proud he was that that his film Policeman was the first non-documentary to be screened in Israel's thriving guerilla rooftop-cinema.

A Separation is currently screening at Film Forum

Lest one think this is exclusive to the nation of Iran, or post-revolutionary Egypt, or anywhere but here, as it were, I'll note that in America, we have recently learned, or rather, been reminded (since we seem to have forgotten the NYPD's Bloomberg-endorsed illegitimate incarceration and unconscionable detainment of protestors at the 2008 Republican National Convention) of something liminally denied in our collective mindset: right alongside the remarkable freedoms we enjoy, there exists the diabolical co-reality that the true pace of our individual lives, as defined by the duration allowed before questions of the economy of violence are determined in a non-peaceful manner by, well, The State, in an event resembling a micro-breakdown, is far beyond our control and is in fact, determined by a phantom, collective perception of public space, this mindset making appear as particularly garish, any micro-minority seeking to enforce the rights which make for the truest test, in a sense, of what democracy and liberty and public space truly mean, vis-à-vis their constitutional enforceability. And yes, whether sympathetic with OWS or not (I was oddly indifferent), we all failed again, telling ourselves subliminally: "It wasn't a test... if it had been a true democratic emergency we would have behaved differently."

"Asghar Farhadi's Iran" Series Screening 4/6 through 4/8

This April, The Film Society of Lincoln Center will be screening several of 2012 Oscar and Golden Globe-winner Asghar Farhadi's films. I called the film society's director Richard Peña, to get his thoughts on the extent to which cinema might serve to amplify other voices beyond the present din, and he shared an honest, committed appraisal: "I think that certainly, Iranian cinema has done an enormous amount to make Iranian people and culture and life much more real for viewers, whereas more of the media reports we get are much more disturbing and horrible -- and hopefully A Separation will help with that, but I fear that those kinds of decisions are in the hands of people much more powerful than we are."

"Asghar Farhadi's Iran" Public Screening Schedule, visit for more info

Screening Venue:
The Film Society of Lincoln Center - Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65 Street, between Broadway & Amsterdam (upper level)

Friday, April 6
4:00PM BEAUTIFUL CITY (101min)
8:30PM ABOUT ELLY (119min)

Saturday, April 7
4:30PM BEAUTIFUL CITY (101min)
6:45PM ABOUT ELLY (119min)

Sunday, April 8
1:30PM ABOUT ELLY (119min)
8:15PM BEAUTIFUL CITY (101min)

UP NEXT, Pt. 2: This Is Not A Film, or, The Three Little Obstructions