Already a hit on the festival circuit and in Europe, the Iranian drama A Separation is poised to become the latest American art house smash. The film won a Golden Globe on Sunday, and of this writing, it’s ranked number 80 on IMDb’s top 250 (Full Metal Jacket and Amadeus are 81 and 82, respectively). Writer/director Asghar Farhadi‘s latest is a relentlessly intense domestic drama, one where the audience must work through difficult questions involving class, religion, and family.
A middle-class couple is at the center of the film: Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are ending their marriage because she wants leave Tehran for a better life. Nader feels he must stay at home so he can take care of his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who has Alzheimer’s. With Simin staying elsewhere and his daughter (Sarina Farhadi) at school, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to take care of his father. Razieh and Nader have an argument of how best to treat the father, and its consequences lead to a legal battle where the truth is always elusive. I recently talked to Farhadi about his characters, Iranian censorship, and how Kurosawa influenced his work.
*WARNING: INTERVIEW CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS*
What was your process for constructing such a complex plot?
It’s difficult to explain this because it’s like driving. When you drive, you don’t think of something – you just drive. When I’m making a movie, writing stories are like driving. Most of the time, I start with an image in my mind. For example, in A Separation, I had an image of a guy in the bathroom, with his father who has Alzheimer’s, and he was washing him. I asked myself, “Who is he? Where is his family? Why he is washing his father in his home?” Once I find the answer to this question, I clear up this story. Then I finish the plot and I put some signs – some themes, some detailed themes. So, I don’t have themes that are looking for a story. I have [the reverse]. For me, writing a story and making a movie is like a crossword puzzle. Every detail is related to other pieces. It’s like a game.
It’s funny that you mention a crossword puzzle, because one thing that I thought was interesting was the importance of a staircase. The shape of it is very important. Did you approach the physical constraints of the staircase first, or did you come up with the tension?
The structure is [of my story] is not a line; it is a circle. You work around the situations, like an onion, taking the layers out. It’s an Eastern connection. When I’m writing a story, I don’t put just one perspective. A lot depends on the audience. Maybe you like watching movie in a social perspective. Maybe you like watching this movie in a moral perspective. These perspectives take [more time to construct]. So I would start the story again, looking for a social a social perspective, and change some details. Then I’d do the same from a moral perspective. And so on.
Was there any one perspective that you struggled with more than others?
For me, moral perspective is very important. Because social situations change everyday, everywhere. But moral perspectives, and questions about morality, are always similar. We all have several moral questions during this story.
Have audiences been judging the characters at all?
Yeah, sometimes. Most audiences say, “We understand all of [the characters]. We like all of them.” But sometimes people say, “Oh, this character – Termeh, the daughter – I follow her.” In Iran, some people say, “Oh, we follow Nader and Razieh.” But when I’m writing and making this movie, I tried not to have any judgment. If I did judge the characters, I hid it. In the movie, the distance between me and characters is equal. But you, the audience, can choose. You can say, “This character is better than the others, and what he does is right.”
Can you talk about the differences between Iranian and Western audiences a little more?
I think that the reactions here, Iran, and France are very similar. I don’t think every country has just one reaction to this movie. But after watching it, people always have several questions. In U.S.A., they ask me about the relationship between the two families, and the war between two social classes. The same goes for Iran, too.
Late in the film, Nader asks Razieh to pledge on the Qur’an. In Iran, is that a common practice for resolving disputes?
For religious people, yeah, it’s normal. Like in the US, swearing [to tell the truth] is very important. But in that scene, I think Nader is [acting poorly] when he says, “Please, put your hand on the Qur’an.” I ask myself, “Why? It’s not your style. It’s not your way.”
So when you were shooting that scene, did you instruct the actor to play it that way? What was your process of working with your cast?
Before shooting, we have a long time to rehearse – two, three months. We don’t sit there around the table, reading the screenplay. We take out screenplay, and we talk about other things. For example, there is an [off-screen] relationship between my daughter Sarina, who plays Temeh, and Peyman, who plays Nader. I asked them to spend time together. My daughter went to his office, his house. They talked together, they worked together. They went to by the same car to everywhere, and they talked about music, a lot of things. And after two months, after three months, that relationship was very strong, you know. My background is in theater. I studied it for seven years. And in theater, you work with the cast like this. I don’t want to explain everything to them.
While shooting, was it difficult for you to keep things ambiguous?
I think A Separation a detective movie, but the detective is not inside the movie. [The audience] is the detective, so it’s very important [to think about] how much information I give them in a scene. I have to hide some information, so the audience can search for important details. After an event, they go back to the details, no matter how simple. A good example is that scene where the girl is bringing the trash down the stairs. When you’re watching it, you say, “Why this scene is in this movie? It’s not important.” And much later, you find out, “Oh, it was very important, actually.”
With regard to making the audience the detective, The first shot reminded me a lot of Rashomon, the Kurosawa film.
It is my best movie of my life. You like it?
Sure, I love it. [The first shot] was sort of the same, you know?
Yes. It is also [taken from] a Bergman film.
Scenes of the Marriage. That first scene, you remember?
The couple is in front of camera they are talking about the relationship between them. When I finished the scene, I came back to my home and I thought, “Oh, this – this scene is very funny for me. Today I shoot this, and now I realize it’s very similar to the Marriage.” I love his work, Bergman.
A lot of early critics have described A Separation as a thriller.
Yeah. It’s in that style, as is my previous movie. First, I have realistic language. And on other side, I add [suspense]. Both of them, together, I think is something new.
Were there any scenes in particular that were controversial to Iranian audiences?
When the [Iranian] government gave me access for showing this, I didn’t have any problems. But a few months later, I read something from them, and they found something they didn’t like. We were already gone, so we were lucky.
Do you remember which one it was?
The first scene and the last scene.
Later in the film, there’s a lot of talk of blood money. Can you explain that concept a bit more?
It’s a very complex subject in Iran, because it has several angles. From one side, if someone kills another, they have to pay his family. From a moral side, it’s very complex because [blood money] puts a price for on a person. How can I say, as a human, I’m equal to this amount of money, you know? But in Iran, in religious law, it’s important.
There are also religious differences between the two married couples in the film.
Not just religious. They are from two groups of people, two social classes. The middle class is very, very big; most of the people in Iran are inside this group. Then there’s the poor class. There is a tension between them. The middle class are about modernity. They watch the future. For the poorer class, the past is very important. Custom is very important. I don’t have any judgment between, but it’s real. It’s a war. With this movie, I was asking how [Iran] can have the future and past together.
A Separation opens at Bethesda Row today.