It’s a prize that is most often given to Western films. But this year, the frontrunner for the best foreign language film at the 2012 Oscars is A Separation, an Iranian film that has won the hearts of the critics and of many American moviegoers as well.

There are numerous reasons for the Golden Globe winning film’s warm reception. For starters, director Asghar Farhadi’s compelling tale of family conflict is excellent. It’s “a good film by any standard,” according to Washington Post culture critic Phillip Kennicott, who recently spoke to Farhadi.

But its artistic merits are only part of the movie’s appeal. At a time when political tension between the United States and Iran escalates daily, Americans seem to be interested in a genuine look at everyday life in Iran.

And that’s what Farhadi delivers in a mere two hours.

The movie chronicles the unraveling of two families united by circumstance. It begins with characters Simin and Nader, a middle-class married couple, sitting in a courtroom seeking a divorce. Simin claims she does not want to raise her only daughter in Iran. Nader, whose elderly father needs to be cared for, refuses to leave with her.

The couple’s already strained relationship becomes even more complicated when Nader is implicated in a legal battle begun by the woman he hires to watch his father in his wife’s absence. The caretaker, Razieh, and her husband are debt-ridden and seek financial retribution for a wrong they feel Nader caused.

Ultimately, though, the legal battle itself is less important to the film than the themes it exposes. The conflict highlights age-old questions of truth, justice, responsibility and family, while also illustrating the inner-workings of the city of Tehran.

The families represent a true cross-section of Iranian society. The first is wealthy and secular; the second, pious and working class, with each member experiencing the events at the heart of the film differently.

Throughout the film, Farhadi remains a keen, but detached observer. He artfully captures each character’s unique experience, but does not prioritize any one character’s interpretation of events above the others. This is the great directorial accomplishment of the film. The characters are never reduced to stereotype, and viewers are left with divided sympathies. The actors give their characters memorable, though understated, personalities.

Thus, Farhadi’s sensitive portrayal of Iranian society is markedly different from the two-dimensional way Iran is generally shown in the American media.

In fact, Tehran, a teeming capital, seems an awful lot like an American city. Hamid Naficy, a professor at Northwestern University and author of A Social History of Iranian Cinema (newest volumes forthcoming in 2012), argues that the urban setting of A Separation is what allows for an unprecedented sense of commonality American viewers feel with the characters. Unlike other Iranian films, this movie focuses on the urban middle classes, which “provides a kind of social model [Americans] identify with.”

Kennicott further observed that the movie is primarily shot in Simin and Nader’s apartment. The apartment is elegant, filled with all of the luxuries one expects to find in an American household. There is even, Kennicott added, a painting by famous American artist Andrew Wyeth.

These details are not to be overlooked. The nature of the movie, with its complex narrative, is an exercise in concentration. As Kennicott explained, it is impossible to grasp the movie’s plot without paying very close attention. Understanding the movie “becomes a matter of really focusing on minute details,” he said.

Farhadi himself conceded the importance of small details in the movie, and told Kennicott that he oversaw every aspect of the apartment’s design, and constructed it to his specifications.

The character’s particularities, too, add to the movie’s resonance. Simin drives around in a European car, wears chic clothes, talks on her cell phone, and butts heads with her husband. She is an independent, thoroughly modern woman, who, according to Naficy, represents, “the degree to which Iranian women are dynamic.” Contrary to cultural stereotypes of Iranian women, A Separation shows them the ability to embody ideals of strong womanhood.

“They haven’t been subjugated; they are fighting back,” he added.

But does its sense of universality preclude the film being characterized as ‘Iranian’? Naficy would disagree. A Separation remains “deeply Iranian,” he said.

The weaving together of different perspectives described earlier, for example, is a classic mark of Iranian art. A Separation “really is very much like Iranian classical miniature painting, where you have multiple perspectives,” Naficy observed. “If you look at a traditional miniature painting, it doesn’t have any one vanishing point; the viewer has to actually discover the point of view for him or herself.”

Engagement with the viewer, and the open-endedness of the film, is something that notably differentiates it from American movies. Kennicott agrees. American films are not typically morally ambiguous, he noted. They “don’t leave uncertain who the good and bad guys are.”

He speculated that this aspect of the film is both intriguing and alienating to American viewers. While those “disaffected” from American cinema may find Farhadi’s film refreshing for its lack of clear moral, some Americans may find it confusing or depressing. The movie is not “uplifting or neatly tied up”– characteristics some moviegoers look for.

Others found the layered narratives simply sluggish. New York Post critic Kyle Smith, for example, criticized the film for being slow-moving. In the same article he also reproached Farhadi for “[making] no political argument about the merits of Iran.”

Don’t be fooled, however. While the movie may be ambiguous in its plot, it is not without political undertones. Though Farhadi claims that his film is an apolitical one, critics like Kennicott remain skeptical.

He pointed to a pivotal moment of the movie in which Razieh worries that her Islamic faith prohibits her from helping her elderly charge use the bathroom. For him, this moment shows “a conflict between religion and a basic sense of humanity. To be compassionate, Razieh has to be irreligious. And I think there’s a sense of absurdity there.”

The theme of divorce and of women’s rights also comes off as a political statement.

This sort of indirect engagement with political or national issues, Naficy explained, further makes the film Iranian. In Iran, movies cannot be overtly oppositional, as the government censors films deemed too provocative.

Like the entire movie, then, even social criticisms in A Separation are meted out with subtlety and sensitivity.

The movie is, on the whole, a true ode to detail. Farhadi dexterously pieces the foreign and the familiar. The result is a movie that asserts its national and cultural context, while transcending it.

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