During the golden age of Hollywood, American film specialized in genre pictures: westerns, war films, gangster films, screwball comedies. One of these genres, once a prominent part of moviegoers’ diets, hardly exists in American film anymore: the women’s picture.
In its heyday, films such as “Stella Dallas’’ and “Mildred Pierce’’ (the 1945 original with Joan Crawford) told and retold a familiar story of the sufferings and sacrifices of women, giving up everything for the sake of their families. Barbara Stanwyck, in the 1937 version of “Stella’’ directed by King Vidor (there had also been a 1925 silent “Stella’’), allows her daughter to abandon her in the name of giving her a better life. Crawford’s Mildred similarly risks her own happiness to please a mercurial daughter. Last year’s Todd Haynes-Kate Winslet HBO miniseries, “Mildred,’’ is perhaps the closest contemporary culture has come to re-creating the form.
Haynes and Winslet aside, the women’s picture is no longer a staple of the American film. The rise of feminism has diminished the symbolic power of tales of women demeaning themselves for the sake of their children or husbands. And the collapse of the studio system has meant far greater freedom for filmmakers - no more Hays Code, no more morality police. So why is it that roles for women other than Meryl Streep seem more paltry, more threadbare, than ever, while in Iran - a country associated with religious theocracy, censorship, and stoning for adultery - the women’s picture is alive and well?
The poet Robert Frost once compared free verse to playing tennis with the net down. If, in American film, the net has been carefully packed away for more than 40 years, Iran’s mullahs maintain careful control over their country’s movies. Rules abound: about political advocacy, about modest dress for women, about appropriate subject matter. And yet, Iranian film has flourished in the past two decades in large part because of its embrace of the form and tone of the women’s picture. Telling stories about women scorned, women abused, and women triumphant, filmmakers such as Asghar Farhadi, the director of the new film “A Separation,’’ Marzieh Meshkini, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Meshkini’s husband), Abbas Kiarostami, and Jafar Panahi have crafted a wedge for a resonant critique of Iran’s copious political and social failings, coded in the familiar language of domesticity. “A Separation’’ opens here Friday.
The Iranian women’s film shares with its American predecessor an abiding concern with women in moments of extremity. The young actress trapped on a film set with a lovelorn young man playing her husband in Kiarostami’s “Through the Olive Trees’’ (1994); the Afghan journalist touring the Taliban’s wreckage in Makhmalbaf’s “Kandahar’’ (2001); the snapshots of women at three stages of life in Meshkini’s haunting “The Day I Became a Woman’’ (2000): All these films find women struggling, mostly fruitlessly, against the artificial bonds of a society that tells them no at every turn. Women become the cinematic representatives of a country devoted to stifling dissenting voices, their personal travails symbolic of Iranians’ internal struggles against authoritarianism. By telling the inevitably downbeat stories of women, these films are an inherent rebuke of the regime that has kept women second-class citizens.
“A Separation,’’ which played to much acclaim at last year’s New York Film Festival, indicts the Iranian legal system and the country’s seething differences of class and religious observance, refracted through the lens of a single multifaceted dispute. Nader (Peyman Moadi) is left alone with his elderly father and his daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter) after his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), has left him, perhaps temporarily. He hires a working-class woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to help care for his father. Nader comes home from work and discovers his father collapsed on the floor, locked in his room, with Razieh nowhere to be found. When she returns, there is a scuffle, and Razieh claims to have been thrown down the stairs and to have suffered a miscarriage as a result. Nader is arrested for the murder of the fetus.
“A Separation,’’ with its steadily shifting points of view, its courtroom scenes, and its miasma of middle-class guilt, is like “Witness for the Prosecution’’ crossed with Michael Haneke’s “Caché.’’ And yet what lingers is the film’s women, locked into roles they cannot tolerate, and cannot escape. Dragging carpets and lugging trash, Razieh is associated with backbreaking labor she seems too frail to take on. Simin, far more privileged, is no less trapped, sitting shellshocked on her bed as she realizes that Razieh’s troubles mean that she is once more responsible for her father-in-law’s care. Termeh, too, is thrust into knotty adult warfare that ultimately leaves her sullied. The men of “A Separation’’ are victims and instigators, but it is instinctively understood that it is the women who will bear the pain.
Farhadi’s claustrophobic sphere is a direct descendant of Panahi’s, in which women are the losers in a world of arbitrary justice. “The Circle’’ (2000), Panahi’s best film to date, begins and ends with women in a Tehran jail cell, forming a dismal loop of subjugation. But oppression is not the final word for Panahi’s women. In “Offside’’ (2006), a group of female soccer fans protest their exclusion from the crowd at a World Cup qualifying match and succeed in being able to cheer on their country’s team, if only momentarily, and from a distance. Panahi is currently in prison himself, snatched up by the same mode of arbitrary justice he decries in his films.
Films like “A Separation’’ illustrate the circumstances of their creation by reintegrating their domestic, feminine struggles with the world at large. The American women’s film was a pre-feminist refuge for women, and a murky reflection of their own coiled power. Iranian women’s films do much the same, but their choice of subjects is a partial dodge, underscoring the political content of their stories. It is not just women in Iran who are hemmed in by an unfair power structure, but every Iranian.
Saul Austerlitz can be reached at email@example.com.