This winter, while Republican presidential candidates waxed belligerent about Iran's nuclear policy and Israel warned that it might pre-emptively strike the Islamic Republic, one Iranian waged a countercampaign of international understanding. Asghar Farhadi, 40, is a filmmaker, not a diplomat, and his movie A Separation is no pacifist political tract. Yet as the picture accumulated awards, culminating in the first Oscar (for Best Foreign Language Film) ever won by an Iranian, Farhadi became a de facto spokesman for a besieged people, and his movie the face of a complex modern society.
Detailing the conflict of two Tehran couples one middle class and secular, the other working class and religious A Separation is both Iranian and universal. The warring husbands could as easily be an urban American liberal and a rural fundamentalist.
In a land whose hierarchy has punished such bold directors as Jafar Panahi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Farhadi's success at home could seem an act of craven collaboration. But exile or imprisonment is not a filmmaker's only badge of honor. Another is speaking prickly truth in pictures, for all the world to see.
Corliss is TIME's chief movie critic