AURORA | It doesn’t take long for the two lead characters in the film “A Separation” to run into a whole range of conflicts.
Not even 10 minutes into the award-winning drama by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, and the husband and wife played by Peyman Moaadi and Leila Hatami have already slogged through an ugly legal argument about separation. That fight includes pitched battles about the couple’s daughter, their marriage and their very future in Iran.
According to film critic and University of Colorado Denver film professor Howie Movshovitz, it’s easy to find deeper themes about the current state of Iranian culture in those bitter fights on film.
“Everything is an argument,” he told the crowd of professors, students and doctors gathered at the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities at the Anschutz Medical Campus on Feb. 3. “There’s a surprising amount of argument in Iranian cinema,” he added, insisting that common theme speaks to a larger polarization in the culture.
Movshovitz brought plenty of film to back up this theory during his presentation in Aurora. In addition the clip from “The Separation,” which won an Academy Award in 2012 for Best Foreign Language Film, Movshovitz showed clips from director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 1996 film “Gabbeh” and from the 1996 film “The Color of Paradise,” directed by Majid Majidi. All of the movies spoke to similar themes about conflict and abandonment.
Movshovitz, who’s worked at National Public Radio and Colorado Public Radio, was more teacher than critic as he talked about the clips and pointed out common themes. He fielded questions from professors and students alike and spoke to the fact that Iran is one of the Middle East’s cinematic “hotbeds.”
That kind of education is one of the main missions behind this cultural center set up in the middle of a multibillion dollar medical center. According to Therese Jones, director of the Arts and Humanities program at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, the movies had plenty of themes to offer the mix of doctors, students and caregivers.
“We can look at those films as metaphors, for the lives of people in Iran and their relationship with the state,” Jones said. “At the same time, I think what resonated for our audience were the universal themes and very familiar situations.” One of the arguments in “A Separation,” for example, has to do with taking care of a character’s elderly father suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. That kind of struggle is familiar for many of the physicians who came to hear Movshovitz speak about film.
“I found that to be very relevant for our clinicians,” Jones said.
But the universal themes in these movies exist side-by-side with struggles very specific to Iran. The common ties in these films are questions of conflict, family and abandonment. They’re themes of solitude that seem to have a root in the contemporary state of Iranian politics, in the violent suppression of any kind of dissident voice. According to Movshovitz, those kinds of limits on free speech are a reason why so many Iranian filmmakers choose to make their movies in Europe. The risk of violent retribution is also why so many of these movies depend so deeply on the power of
“Working in Iran is not always easy,” Movshovitz said.
That’s why movies like “A Separation” tackle such questions in subtle ways. By the time the character Simin, played by actress Hatami, starts climbing the staircase of a nondescript apartment building early in the movie, she’s already suffered her share of struggle, pain and argument.
But the director doesn’t let up. He finds a way to complicate the character’s life, although perhaps in the most menial of ways. A pair of movers handling a clunky piano pauses on a landing between flights. They waste no time in arguing with Simin about the price of moving the instrument. They insist she didn’t tell them it would be so many flights. They tell her they’ll have to charge her more, and she finds herself stuck in yet another argument.
According to Movshovitz, that seemingly trivial argument offers an important glimpse into the current state of Iranian culture.
“It’s essentially about the weight of culture — this piano, and how we move it,” Movshovitz said. “A lot of Iranian films are ultimately about the question of modernity … How do you move a culture? Which was is it going, up or down? Here, they can’t even count the floors.”
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or [email protected]