Israeli filmgoers flock to see Oscar-winning movie from Iran

Iran trumpeted the Islamic Republic’s first foreign film Oscar win Feb. 26  as a triumph over archfoe Israel — even as audiences in Israel packed theaters to watch the movie that beat their country’s entry at the Academy Awards.

The groundbreaking success of “A Separation,” which tells the story of a failing marriage, was cast mostly in nationalist terms by Iranian authorities amid a mounting showdown between Israel and its Western allies over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program.

Yet the attention from Iran’s Islamic leadership also represents a rare stamp of approval on the country’s movie industry, which collects awards and accolades worldwide but is often dismissed by hardliners at home as dominated by Western-tainted liberals and political dissenters.

The Israeli film “Footnote” was in the competition against director Asghar Farhadi’s movie, which explores troubles in Iranian society through the story of a marriage in collapse. Many Iranian hardliners objected to the themes of domestic turmoil, gender inequality and the desire by many Iranians to leave the country.

Asghar Farhadi accepts the Oscar for “A Separation.” photo/ap-mark j. terrill

But Farhadi, in his acceptance speech in Los Angeles, said he hoped the Oscar would raise awareness of Iran’s artistic achievements and rich culture that has been “hidden under the heavy dust of politics.”

Iranian cinema has reaped praise and prizes at international festivals such as Venice and Cannes for decades –– as part of an artistic tradition among Iranians that includes poetry, music and artwork that now command some of the highest prices in galleries in Dubai and elsewhere.

Clampdowns by hardliners in recent years — particularly since the unrest after the disputed 2009 presidential elections — have been directed at artists and others, forcing some to flee the country or work underground. In January, a well-known independent film group in Tehran was ordered closed.

But Iranian state media used the Oscar-winning film to trumpet a success over Israel. The state TV broadcast said the award succeeded in “leaving behind” a film from the “Zionist regime,” the phrase often used in Iran to describe Israel.

Israel has not ruled out military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, which the West fears could be used to develop weapons. Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes like energy production.

In Israel, the film has been a hit despite the daily newspaper headlines warning of the Iranian nuclear threat. The Oscar buzz, the face-off with an Israeli contender and glowing reviews have drawn an impressive 30,000 Israeli filmgoers since “A Separation” opened in mid-February.

“It’s very well acted, exceptionally well written and very moving,” said Yair Raveh, film critic for Israel’s leading entertainment magazine, Pnai Plus. “Ultimately you don’t think about nuclear bombs or dictators threatening world peace. You see them driving cars and going to movies and they look exactly like us.”

The local favorite was still Israel’s Oscar contender, Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote,” a talmudic scholar saga. But the interest in “A Separation” was piqued by the rare glimpse it offered into the living rooms of a country Israelis regard as a threat to their survival.

After a Feb. 26 screening in Jerusalem, Rina Brick, 70, said she was surprised by the humane portrayal of Iranian bureaucrats. “Our image of how Iran works is less democratic than we see here,” she said. “The judge, the police, everyone behaves as if they are in a Western country.”

“A Separation” is shown mostly at the seven theaters owned by Lev Cinemas, whose CEO Guy Shani said the heated atmosphere over Iran’s nuclear program has helped to draw viewers.

Raveh, the film critic, said Israelis historically have been drawn to see movies produced by enemy countries, including Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq –– which are all off-limits to Israeli visitors.

“We like to take a look at what happens across the borders,” Raveh said.

Farhadi said he thought the success of “A Separation” pleased some in the Iranian government and not others. “The Iranian government is not unanimous at all,” he said.

It was the first Iranian film to win the award. The only other Iranian movie nominated was 1997’s “Children of Heaven,” which was defeated by the Italian movie “Life Is Beautiful.”

“A Separation” tells the story of a couple heading for divorce and dealing with domestic troubles, including a young child and an aging parent. It portrays a husband who is protective of his father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. He is in conflict with his wife, who wishes to emigrate. Their daughter is torn between them.

Iranian TV did not broadcast the Academy Awards live, but many Iranians watched through satellite dishes, which are illegal but widely used. State TV later aired clips of Farhadi’s acceptance speech.

Iranian artists and the public were delighted by the win.

 “I feel fresh air in my lungs. I watched the ceremony through satellite TV channels with four of my friends,” said Erfan Khazaei, an art student in Azad University. “Now we are more hopeful about the future.”

But ultraconservatives denigrated the film as a slap at the country.

Ebrahim Fayyaz, a prominent hardline sociologist, told the Nasim news website that “A Separation” was a “black realistic film” that portrays the country as an old man, as a symbol of tradition and the past, afflicted with Alzheimer’s. He said the movie suggests emigrating to the West as a solution.

“The West awards movies that are in the direction of their policies,” he said.

Though Israel’s film failed to score an Oscar, Jewish director Michel Hazanavicius won top honors for “The Artist,” a black-and-white homage to Hollywood’s silent film era. It garnered five Oscars — for best picture, director, actor, costume design and original musical score.

Hazanavicius is a French Jew whose parents and grandparents survived the Nazi occupation by hiding in the French countryside. The film’s producer, Thomas Langmann, is the son of famed French director Claude Berri, whose parents were Eastern European Jews and whose first film, “Two of Us,” dealt with a French Jewish boy hiding from the Nazis.

In addition, veteran Woody Allen won the golden statuette (as always in absentia) for his original screenplay for “Midnight in Paris.”

JTA contributed to this report.