Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly (Darbareye Elly, Iran, 2009) was one of my favourite films from last year so I was overdue in catching up with this Oscar-winning follow-up (incidentally it seems to me the Academy’s taste in foreign-language films is better than its English-language preferences). This film, unlike Elly, is a slow-burner in that it takes a while to set up without the engaging humour of the earlier piece but it’s nonetheless fascinating in its representation of Iranian life. However, once the ‘mystery’ narrative is underway – what actually happened when…? – the moral complexities of the situation are gripping.
In its narrative enigma it’s similar too About Elly however A Separation focuses more upon religious and social mores than its predecessor, which had the position of women in Iranian society at its centre. Women here, too, are important, but are one aspect of many including the role of judiciary and how to deal with Alzheimer’s in an ageing parent.
Farhadi’s direction is both arty, particularly the opening sequence when the estranged central couple directly address the camera as the judge, and realist in its handheld following of action. The film’s blessed with a multitude of excellent performances, including Farhadi’s young daughter. It ultimately makes gripping viewing.
In interview Farhadi is understandably reticent about his social critique, fellow-director Jafar Panahi has been imprisoned by the Iranian regime (the last election was hardly legitimate), but from a western perspective his criticism of the sexism of religious Iranian culture is clear. Not that we should congratulate ourselves in Britain, today’s Guardian newspapers highlights that of the 20 over-50 TV presenters only 4 are women. The forces of reaction are strong everywhere.