Iranians: As Unhappy As We Are

Why a movie about a dissolving marriage in Tehran might help American-Iranian relations more than any diplomacy

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Sony Pictures Classics

A scene from the Iranian film "A Separation"

An attractive married couple with all the badges of mid-life success — jobs, car, private school, nice apartment — have lost their love to stubbornness, resentment and the grinding duties of a demented elderly parent and a pubescent daughter under the same roof. None of that will keep them together. The characters in writer-director Asgha Farhadi’s new film, A Separation, are a modern, urban every-couple, except that their D-I-V-O-R-C-E is spelled in Farsi. What’s surprising is how much these people are like us, despite living in Tehran, home to the Ayatullah’s virtue squads and dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s crisis-provoking nuclear ambitions.

(MORE: Richard Corliss: A Separation: How about an Oscar for This Fascinating Iranian Drama?)

Farhadi’s fifth movie, A Separation, is also about gender politics — no surprise in the land of the chador — but even that theme is eerily familiar. The wife is a modern woman obliged to cover her head in public, and she wants to get her daughter out of Iran. Her husband won’t consider leaving because his elderly father needs him. As their initial separation leads to disaster, it becomes clear that official female repression isn’t the dealbreaker, as much as the clash between man and woman, recognizable to anyone who has ever been married.

Inaugurating the film’s American release, Farhadi screened it in New York last week to a small crowd of notables, including the chief of Sony Classics, which is distributing the film in the U.S., filmmaker Michael Moore and author Erica Jong.

In a Q&A session, Farhadi, speaking Farsi, spoke about state censorship and said Iranian television has never shown any of his films, though it has broadcast pirated versions of Michael Moore’s movies. Moore admitted he gets emails from Iranian fans. “You outed me as the Ayatullah’s favorite filmmaker,” he noted. “I know they show my films because they show the dark side of America. But my films are also about rising up against authority.”

In its own subtle way, A Separation does for Americans what Moore’s films do for Iranians. While Moore’s films argue that Americans are cursed with bad leaders and policies — something Iranians can understand — A Separation reveals an equivalence between us and them. Even officialdom looks like ours: Apparently, Iranian family court and criminal judges are just like our harried bureaucrats (not the Inquisitors we expect) and everyone, even women, moves around with a freedom many Americans can’t imagine in security-state Iran. Can Iranians “just get in their cars and drive?” an audience member asked Farhadi. “There is a difference between the people of a country, and its politicians,” he replied.

(MORE: Can Diplomacy Save an American Condemned to Death in Iran?)

After decades of national distrust and rumors of war rumbling as predictably as the seasons, it’s almost impossible for Americans to believe that Iranian people share the vicissitudes of modern life, whether it’s watching their love dissolve or getting in their cars to drive. With the U.S. government sanctioning Iran and the Iranian regime threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, this quietly powerful movie is like the lone man or woman standing in front of the inevitable tank, reminding us that domestic sorrow is impervious to national borders, peace and war.