MIAMI — Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi chooses his words carefully when talking about how constraints can sometimes fuel creativity.
“The belief that limitations create creativity is both correct and incorrect,” he says. “It can be a very dangerous statement, because those who impose limitations can always argue that they’re helping the artist be more creative.
“In the short term, limitations can increase creativity. But in the long run, they’re stifling. We should never assume freedom is an antithesis — or in any way an obstacle — to creativity.”
Farhadi is in the unenviable position of being the current torch bearer for Iranian cinema around the world — at the same moment his country’s government is cracking down on filmmakers.
“A Separation,” which Farhadi wrote and directed, is an unqualified masterpiece. The movie began its phenomenal run at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, where it became the first Iranian movie to win the event’s prestigious Golden Bear. Since then, it has racked up awards from the festival circuit and critics’ groups, made the short list of candidates for the foreign language Oscar (nominees will be announced Tuesday) and won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film last week.
But on Jan. 4, while Farhadi was in the United States to attend the Globes ceremony and do interviews on behalf of “A Separation,” the Culture Ministry of Iran ordered the closing of the House of Cinema, an unofficial guild with more than 5,000 members that had supported independent film production in that country for 20 years. Government officials claimed the organization did not have a valid operating license and intend to replace it with a committee to ensure Iranian movies adhere to Islamic principles and avoid politically charged subjects.
In 2010, Farhadi ran afoul of government censors who temporarily halted production on “A Separation” after he expressed support for Iranian filmmakers who had been imprisoned or exiled over their work. Last week, he wrote a letter of complaint to government officials over the shuttering of the guild.
“This is a very disheartening development for Iranian cinema, especially since the reason given does not seem valid,” Farhadi said. “The House of Cinema was a big supporter of filmmakers and other film-related professionals. Most Iranian filmmakers are doing their best to stop this from happening.”
Interestingly, while “A Separation” is not an overtly political film — this is more a study of class and gender differences — the great strife and dilemmas that consume the lives of its characters are a direct result of contemporary Iranian society. The movie opens as the married couple Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hamati) appear before a judge to request a divorce. She wants to move abroad with their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) so that the girl doesn’t have to “grow up under these circumstances.” But he refuses to leave behind his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s.
The couple has hit an impasse. But the judge denies their request, saying their problem is “a small problem.” Angry and frustrated, Simin moves out, forcing Nader to hire a maid (Sareh Bayat) to help look after his father. But she is overwhelmed and inexperienced and quits after one day.
What happens next is a series of small incidents and poor decisions that escalate into a legal standoff with potentially cataclysmic consequences. The themes of “A Separation” strongly invoke Chekhov: The class differences between Nader and his maid, seemingly insignificant at first, become crucial later when they’re squaring off in court. All the characters struggle with the frustration of navigating societal rituals that, in many ways, they have outgrown but are still bound to observe by law.
Farhadi doesn’t play favorites in “A Separation” — you come to understand every one of the multitude of points of view in the film — and in a way, the judge whose presence becomes increasingly important as the story unfolds becomes the audience surrogate: an impartial observer to an emotionally charged dilemma that could ruin two families.
Moadi, who plays the beleaguered husband and father trying to do what he thinks is best for his family, says Farhadi was careful never to allow his characters to fall into the traditional roles of heroes and villains.
“There are no bad guys in his movies,” says the actor, who had previously worked with Farhadi in 2009’s “About Elly.” “His stories are attractive to actors because they are about normal people who happen to make a small mistake — the kind of mistakes we all make, except this time one of them leads to a big crime.”
The cast of “A Separation” had a lengthy rehearsal process before filming began, because Farhadi wanted each of the actors to believe fully in his or her character and understand their points of view.
“My wife and I see things completely differently in the movie,” Moadi says. “Simin thinks she’s doing good for our daughter, but I think she’s making things worse for us. The way she thinks is very difficult for my character to understand. She believes that there is something wrong with our country, and we should leave for the sake of our daughter’s future. But I believe that if there is something wrong, then we should stay and fix it. There are a lot of people in Iran who agree with her, and a lot of others who think like me.”
Despite its cultural specificity, the story of “A Separation” has proven as engrossing to people around the world as it was to Iranian moviegoers, proving that the more specific you can make your film, the more likely it will be embraced by foreign audiences.
“When you’re making a movie, you always hope it will have a global audience,” Moadi says. “But we never anticipated this huge of a success. We never really thought we would get such a warm reception. We’re so happy about this experience.
“You have to be in it to truly understand how lovely it is: To tell a story about your country, which you’re not even sure if your own country will like, and then have people around the world tell you they loved it. Cultural boundaries don’t matter when you have a good story to tell. Maybe movies really are the universal language.”