Berlinale Dispatch: The Good News (and Bad News) About Iran

There are just two days of screenings left at the Berlinale -- the prizes are awarded on Sunday -- but today is my last day at the festival, my day of reckoning. This is the point at which I look back on everything I've seen and, more wrenchingly, tote up everything I wanted to see but missed. While I've tried to chase down most of the films screening in competition here, day by day my colleagues have been feeding me recommendations from the Panorama and Forum sections of the festival, which showcase films that generally have smaller budgets and take larger risks. I didn't get to see many of those pictures, and that's where my deepest regret lies.

Not to get all Neil Gaiman on you, but whenever I attend a festival, I dream of an alternate, mirror-universe festival, where the not-so-great movies I saw in real life erase themselves from my schedule to make way for the smaller pictures that I didn't know I wanted to see until it was too late: In this case, movies like Alma Har'el's documentary Bombay Beach, about the last hundred residents of the parched area around the Salton Sea, or Mishen, from Russia, a futuristic fantasy in which the Euro-elite fly to a secret remote location where, supposedly, the aging process stops.

Still, I have few complaints about the real-life festival that has taken shape for me over the last eight days. Sitting through a bad movie may feel like a kind of death, but -- as far as I know -- no one has ever actually died from it. I certainly lived through the well-intentioned if slightly dopey Turkish semi-comedy Our Grand Despair, about a pair of bachelor friends -- they could be suppressing their homosexuality, although the film doesn't spell that out -- who both fall in love with the 20-ish student who comes to live with them. And the handsome-looking but ineffectual Come Rain, Come Shine, by Korean director Lee Yoon-ki, in which a couple drift through their apartment like half-awake ghosts in the hours before they're supposed to split up, was certainly no worse than The Future, Miranda July's meditation on a similar subject. (Both feature a cat, though the Korean cat, unlike July's American one, doesn't talk.)

And then there are those well-directed, well-acted pictures that, even though they aren't automatic candidates for any particular prize, remind you nonetheless that people all over the world are finding ways to make polished, engaging pictures without spending huge amounts of money. Lipstikka, by Israeli director Jonathan Sagall, is just one of those pictures. Two Palestinian women living in London -- who were friends, though more than just friends, as young women growing up in Ramallah in the early '90s -- reconnect and reckon with their fractured memories of a single horrific event. Actually, that makes the picture sound a lot duller than it is: Sagall may be dealing with some serious issues here, not to mention the whole power-of-memory thing, but he's not afraid to give the material an erotic jolt here and there. Every big festival has its share of pictures in which the director appears to be willfully trying to put us to sleep. Thankfully, this isn't one of them.

I do know a few critics who admit to nodding off a bit during Béla Tarr's latest, The Turin Horse. But even the picture's snooziness appears to be something of a selling point -- Tarr apparently pulls off a kind of hypnosis of harshness. My understanding is that The Turin Horse is one of those things that's so artfully done, it leaves you feeling good about feeling bad. It's also turning out to be one of the festival favorites among critics, and despite my previous weisenheimering, I'm sorry I missed it.

Since Pina, Wim Wenders' 3-D documentary about the late choreographer Pina Bausch, screened last Sunday (out of competition), I haven't heard a single critic complain about it. And I'd need more than two hands to count the number of critics, including myself, who prefaced their praise for it by stating, "I don't care at all about modern dance, but. . ." That suggests to me that Wenders has made an impressively inclusive documentary about a niche art form -- he's opened up this particular world for us, instead of drawing a tight, snobby circle around it.

But if word of mouth is any indication, the most well-received film in competition here -- and probably the strongest contender for the Golden Bear -- is Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's Nader and Simin, A Separation. Farhadi won the 2009 Silver Bear Award for his second feature, About Elly. His new picture is a drama about two families -- one deeply religious, one not -- who clash over an escalating series of misunderstandings.

The movie opens with a couple -- the Simin and Nader of the title -- appearing before a judge to hear Simin's petition for divorce. The couple have been planning to leave Iran with their 11-year-old daughter, but Nader calls off the move at the last minute, realizing he can't leave his ailing father behind. Simin wants to, and is willing to, leave without him, to build a better life for her daughter. The judge -- whom we can hear but not see -- stops her to ask archly if she thinks her daughter won't be able to have a good life in Iran. You can guess the verdict he's about to come out with: If Simin really wants what's best for her daughter, she must stay in Iran with her husband.

But if that sounds like a personal -- or even a social -- victory for Nader, it isn't. Farhadi has made a somewhat old-fashioned melodrama: The complication pile-up begins when Nader hires a young woman, Razieh, who happens to be pregnant, to care for his father. Farhadi doesn't always have full control over his wayward, tangled storyline. Significant unseen events are explained, after the fact, by mere lines of dialogue; there's perhaps too much telling here and not enough showing.

But if Farhadi's movie isn't an overt statement about the political, social and religious climate in Iran, it nonetheless seethes with quiet anger and frustration. Like his compatriot Jafar Panahi, Farhadi is attuned to the plight of women in Iran, the way their needs and desires are subjugated to those of their husbands. But he shows how this system fails men, too: Nader becomes charged with a crime that, it seems, he didn't knowingly commit -- in any event, his "knowing" is difficult to prove. And even though his wife has been instructed to stay with him, it's impossible to legislate a human being's love. As far as his marriage goes, the law may rule in Nader's favor, but it can't bring him happiness, and his misery -- even as it's veiled by his more obvious machismo -- is clear every minute. The performances here, by Leila Hatami and Peiman Moadi, are marvelous. These characters intend to do the right thing despite their own deep, personal pain, but they're highly imperfect beings struggling to live in an even more imperfect world; Hatami and Moadi remind us of that in subtle ways, often with little more than a glance or a gesture.

Farhadi is a fine and promising filmmaker, but he's not -- yet -- as bold and lyrical a director as Panahi is. Panahi is a member of the jury at this 61st Berlinale, though he's conspicuously absent, currently serving his six-year jail sentence in Iran. In the festival's early days, the other jury members -- led by chairman Isabella Rossellini -- posed for a group photograph, leaving an obvious gap in the place where Panahi should be standing. It's a moving photograph, -- with that space like a missing tooth that's been yanked out at the root -- but it's also a piercing and angry one.

As it now stands, Panahi is banned from filmmaking in his own country for the next 20 years. Film festivals like the Berlinale are all about the presence of cinema, a reminder of its miraculously renewable ability to mirror the joys, frustrations and sorrows of our own lives. But Panahi's imprisonment, and his potentially devastating artistic shackling, is an absence of cinema that every human being who has ever looked at a movie -- or listened to a piece of music, or read a book, or gazed at a painting -- needs to worry about. And so, while a festival like the Berlinale ought to and needs to be a celebration, there's a particularly bitter footnote attached to this, the 61st. What does the world lose when a filmmaker like Panahi is barred from working? No good can come of it. End of film. End of cinema.