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A Separation, an Oscar-winning glimpse into Iranian life, is one of the best films of the decade

Director Asghar Farhadi is nominated for a second Oscar in 2017, but won’t attend in protest of Donald Trump’s refugee ban.

Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi in A Separation
Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi in A Separation
Sony Pictures Classics
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for February 4 through 10 is A Separation (2011), which is available to digitally rent on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu.

The Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi will not be attending the Academy Awards this year, even though his film The Salesman is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.

Under President Trump’s executive order that restricts travel for immigrants, refugees, and visitors from a number of majority-Muslim countries, Farhadi likely would not be permitted to enter the country and attend the ceremony, barring some loophole.

Palme D'Or Winner Press Conference - The 69th Annual Cannes Film Festival
Asghar Farhadi at the Palme D'Or Winner Press Conference during the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival on May 22, 2016, in Cannes, France.
Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images

But this week he told the New York Times he wouldn’t attend even if he could, in an act of protest against the ban, comparing the act of “hardliners” in the US with Iranian authoritarians. The statement concludes with a fiery indictment:

To humiliate one nation with the pretext of guarding the security of another is not a new phenomenon in history and has always laid the groundwork for the creation of future divide and enmity. I hereby express my condemnation of the unjust conditions forced upon some of my compatriots and the citizens of the other six countries trying to legally enter the United States of America and hope that the current situation will not give rise to further divide between nations.

Taraneh Alidoosti, the star of The Salesman, will also not attend the ceremony in protest. Some have even called for cancellation of the ceremony in solidarity (though such a move seems highly unlikely).

The Salesman only just opened in theaters in the US a week ago, on January 27, and it’s a haunting film that both recasts Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (one storyline has the film’s characters rehearsing a production of the play) and tells its own empathetic story of life in Tehran. “Mr. Farhadi’s control is astonishing, as is the discipline of the actors,” wrote A.O. Scott in his New York Times review of the film. “Their final scenes are at once riveting and hard to watch. Attention, as someone once said, must be paid.”

But Farhadi is most well-known for his 2011 film A Separation, widely considered one of the best films of the decade. The film won the Oscar for best foreign feature in 2012 — Iran’s first film to do so — and also garnered Farhadi a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, which is highly unusual for a foreign-language film. It’s both a political statement and a small, devastating family drama.

Leila Hatami in A Separation 
Leila Hatami in A Separation.
Memento Films International

Like The Salesman, A Separation is the story of two couples whose lives overlap. Simin (Leila Hatami) files for divorce from her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) after he refuses to leave Iran with their daughter; Simin wants to protect her daughter from the regime, but Nader is concerned for the health of his ailing father. Her petition for divorce fails in the courts, so she moves in with her parents. Meanwhile, Nader hires a devout young pregnant woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to care for his father. But tragedy strikes, and what looks like a clear-cut legal situation according to the laws becomes muddied by reality.

Farhadi’s focus is the way policies affect people in a country where both public and private life are tightly regulated according to religious principles. But to say that takes the soul right out of the film: A Separation is the apex of Farhadi’s extraordinary ability to imbue his stories and characters with empathy and moral complexity.

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert characterized it as, among other things, a strong way to understand Iran in the face of inflamed rhetoric (by 2011 standards, anyhow):

Some inflamed American political rhetoric has portrayed it as a rogue nation eager to start nuclear war. All too many Americans, I fear, picture Iranians as camel-riding harem-keepers. Certainly some of Iran's punishments for adultery that we read about seem medieval. But this film portrays a more nuanced nation, and its decent characters are trying to do the right thing. To untangle right and wrong in this fascinating story is a moral challenge. I'd love to see the film with wise judges from American divorce courts and hear their decisions. Sometimes the law is not adequate to deal with human feelings.

It seems just as useful in 2017, when the law and human feelings still seem at loggerheads. Farhadi won’t be in Los Angeles on February 26, but luckily for us, his movies are here already.

Watch the trailer for A Separation:

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