Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won the Silver Bear for best director in 2009 with “About Elly,” and long and loud applause at the end of a press screening ahead of its official world premiere suggested he could go one better with his new picture.
It was a welcome lift for Berlin, where critical reaction to the films shown so far in the main competition lineup of 16 entries has generally been lukewarm.
Simin is a middle class Iranian woman who wants to leave the country with her husband Nader and their 11-year-old daughter to build a better life abroad. Nader refuses, choosing instead to care for his frail father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Simin leaves home, and her husband struggles to cope with his job and family duties. He hires a woman to care for his father, but when he returns to his apartment and discovers she has left and tied the old man to a chair, he loses his temper.
Nader ends up in court as a result of the ensuing row, bringing him into conflict with a poorer, more traditional and religiously devout family.
The truth of what happened is gradually revealed throughout the ensuing tragedy, during which both families elicit our sympathy as do the two innocent daughters caught in the middle.
“There are many undercurrents in society that can lead to (such) predicaments,” Farhadi told reporters in Berlin, speaking through an interpreter.
“One is the struggle between the classes — between the poor, who are more traditional and religious, and the other class which wants to live according to modern rules.
“It’s a somewhat hidden struggle between the old and new in our society. It will cost our society dear.”
While elements of Nader and Simin are particular to Iranian society, the story is more universal.
“The film is about a human being and his weaknesses and faults and how you can be right in a situation but at the same time harm others,” said actress Leila Hatami, who plays Simin.
“A woman has to guarantee the future of her daughter, but knows that by separating she makes her daughter suffer. That’s why it touches everyone — regardless of your social class and your culture.”
Farhadi agreed, adding that one theme of his film was how people everywhere were struggling to find a moral compass.
“Those who are still linked to the traditional standards, for them it’s a bit simpler. But a modern person with a modern life has a lot of conflicts and therefore people are looking for a new definition of morals.”
Farhadi spoke of fellow Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who was invited to be on the jury in Berlin but was handed a six-year jail term and banned from making films for 20 years or traveling outside the country.
“I am very sad,” Farhadi said. “I gave him a call and said goodbye to him when I came here and I was extremely saddened, because I said goodbye to him leaving for a place where he couldn’t go.”
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato