By Jordan Riefe
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hollywood has often criticized Tehran for stifling movie-making, but the acclaimed film "A Separation" is breathing life into Iran's hopes for a rare Oscar success.
Released in the United States on Friday after a year of award wins, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's morally complex look at two contemporary Tehran families could earn Iran's first foreign language Oscar nomination since 1998.
"A Separation" began 2011 as the first Iranian movie ever to win the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in February. It went on to win best foreign language film awards from the U.S. National Board of Review and New York Film Critics Circle, and a Golden Globe nomination.
Farhadi told Reuters that recognition in the West had been gratifying and that he hoped the Oscar buzz will inspire filmmakers in other parts of the world.
"Under difficult conditions you can make films," he said. "If filmmakers from my country can make it to the Oscars, this can be an important message for other filmmakers."
If "A Separation" makes it to the foreign language Oscar short-list of five on January 26, it will be the first Iranian film to be nominated since "Children of Heaven" in 1998.
The film scored a rare 100 percent positive score on U.S. aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes this week, putting it among the best movies -- in any language -- of 2011.
Just three months ago, Hollywood organizations representing writers, directors, actors and the group that awards the Oscars, issued a sharply-worded statement lending their support to jailed Iranian filmmakers.
Those included the house arrest of director Jafar Panahi and the imprisonment of actress Marzieh Vafamehr.
Farhadi has managed to mostly avoid clashing with Iran's conservative censors with his specialty of character-driven dramas -- the type of movies that put family politics over state politics.
"On the one hand, when you've been born and raised there, you know inside yourself, without having to consciously think, you can go after this subject, can't go after the other," Farhadi told Reuters.
ESCAPING CENSORSHIP GAZE
He said filmmakers in Iran address prohibited subjects the way they always have -- in the form of subtext.
Despite his protests to the contrary, some critics say that is exactly what Farhadi does with "A Separation," a domestic drama about a couple, Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), going through a divorce.
Living with his father, an Alzheimer's patient, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to look after the old man. In an altercation, Nader accuses Razieh of neglect and physically expels her from his home. She later suffers a miscarriage and, before a court, holds Nader responsible.
Many critics see the movie as a comment on class differences. Some see it as a critique of Iran's byzantine justice system. And others see it as a clash between modernity and tradition.
Farhadi prides himself on presenting audiences with questions instead of answers. In doing so, he said, "A Separation" offers few targets for censors to aim at.
"I don't think that this form of character development actually has an effect on the gaze of the censorship," Farhadi said.
But by gaining recognition on an international level, circumstances could easily change. Last year, while accepting an award for his previous film "About Elly," Farhadi expressed empathy for fellow filmmaker Panahi. That led to a two-week halt in production on "A Separation."
The reproach failed to chasten Farhadi. A few months later in Berlin he openly wished exiled actress, Golshifteh Farahani ("About Elly") could return to her homeland.
"I feel it's my duty to speak out," he said. "We're all part of a community."
Farhadi could be more vociferous on behalf of his colleagues but that would require self-exile. It's an option he has little interest in pursuing.
"For Iranian filmmakers, the conditions that exist notwithstanding, it's better to make their films in Iran," he said. "Because we know that culture, it's best to, as long as possible, work there."
While Farhadi believes the limitations he has grown used to can inspire greater creativity, eventually they have the opposite effect.
Nevertheless, he criticizes fellow Iranians who emphasize state censorship in order to promote their movies abroad, saying they are as morally culpable as the government officials who censor them.
(Editing by Christine Kearney and Jill Serjeant)