Tehran Comes to Hollywood

March 07, 2012

Multiple Pages
Tehran Comes to Hollywood

The Iranian film A Separation, a domestic drama-turned-courtroom mystery, is among the most acclaimed of recent movies. It won a host of film festival awards, the Best Foreign Language Oscar, and a nomination for Best Original Screenplay—a rarity for a subtitled film. This half-million-dollar movie is even turning a profit at the US box office, with revenue approaching $4 million and rising.

A Separation is a fine film with an exceptional plot. Writer-director Asghar Farhadi drops in well-timed plot twists that are intriguing yet realistic. In the opening scene, a Tehran yuppie couple (the wife an English teacher, the husband a banker) addresses an unseen divorce-court judge. She wants to emigrate, presumably to the US, but he won’t leave his senile father behind. The judge refuses to divorce them. The banker then hires a poor woman to care for his father, only to wind up back in court, accused of causing his new servant’s miscarriage. Much shading of the truth ensues.

Still, two hours of Persians bickering under fluorescent lights isn’t a feast for the eyes. The universal and strenuous praise for this admirable but limited middlebrow film is sincere, but it’s amplified by multiple political motivations.

“It’s hard to live in LA and take seriously the Washington/Tel Aviv storyline of Iran as the new Nazi Germany.”

Were the Oscar voters trying to send a message to Washington by honoring this film? I suspect so. It’s hard to live in LA and take seriously the Washington/Tel Aviv storyline of Iran as the new Nazi Germany. That’s because the Westside is full of Iranians, many of them Jews; yet they make frequent visits home to see their kin. I don’t think Einstein vacationed in Berlin in 1939.

Sure, Persian Jews prefer Beverly Hills to Tehran, but they don’t take AIPAC’s fearmongering seriously. In reality, Iran is a ramshackle place that hasn’t been sufficiently organized to invade another country in at least 150 years.

Many critics view A Separation as a welcome attack on Iran’s fundamentalist Shiite state. Yet the Iranian government sponsored A Separation as its official Oscar entrant. Last week, Tehran television trumpeted its Oscar win over an Israeli film about Talmudic scholars, Footnote, as “the beginning of the collapse of the influence of the Zionist lobby over American society.”

By banning movies from the Great Satan (although it’s easy to buy Hollywood films in Tehran on DVD), the Iranian government facilitates a sizable commercial film industry. It mostly tolerates, and sometimes even subsidizes, an art-house segment for international prestige.

Still, the mullahs occasionally lock up an auteur to encourage the others. It’s a complicated system, but not one that, say, mainland Chinese filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou (Hero) would find unfamiliar.

Farhadi has navigated it with dignity so far, functioning as a sort of loyal opposition. He makes movies that appeal to the regime’s upscale challengers without insulting the government’s down-market supporters. In A Separation, Islam puts the fear of Allah into some of the characters. If not for the threat of being forced to swear on a Koran, there’d be no end to the conniving.

The Iranian state, as personified in A Separation by its overworked judges, is portrayed as under-budgeted but at least scrupulous about lower-class rights when in conflict with the bourgeoisie.

Is Iran’s government piling up a world-threatening nuclear arsenal? Perhaps, but judging from A Separation, it’s having problems merely keeping its courthouses painted. Pretrial hearings are conducted without lawyers in tiny offices, just a tired judge on one side of a desk and the clamorous disputants on the other. I can’t say that this no-jury method, based on the French inquisitorial system, looks much worse than our Anglo-Saxon adversarial system.

I was once a juror in the trial of an Iranian used-car dealer over the embezzlement of two million dollars in California sales-tax revenue. The defendant’s brother-in-law, the brains behind the operation, had vamoosed back to Iran. So California was trying the front man, who had legally pretended to be running the lot in order to slide his banned in-law back into the used-car racket.

After two weeks of testimony, I discovered that my fellow jurors had completely failed to grasp what the case was even about. I don’t imagine some cleric-approved Iranian judge could have done much worse. 

Farhadi’s graceful Oscar acceptance speech last week, which suggested it wouldn’t be good to blow up his country, was the best 60 seconds of publicity Iran has received in some time.

Farhadi recommends not only that America not attack Iranians, but also that Iranians should stay home and fix their homeland. “If your child has a very high fever…would you abandon your child, or would you stay there?”

Mr. Farhadi sounds like a man after my own heart.


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