From scenes of a young girl watching her mother pack a few possessions as she prepares to abandon her home, to the painful negotiations of a father making arrangements for someone to care for his demented elderly parent, A Separation is not a film for the faint-hearted. But if the winner of the 2012 Oscar for best foreign language film is demanding, it is also compelling: a challenging and thought-provoking microcosm of life in present-day Iran.
Filmed by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi in a documentary style, it tells the story of a family break-up set against the backdrop of contradictory modern Tehran, where strict religious teachings and the trappings of modern life come into conflict. It is a masterpiece of highly controlled construction.
Particularly poignant is the scene in which a female character is faced with cleaning up her employer's incontinent father: she feels she must ring an Islamic hotline for guidance before taking him to the bathroom. It is a scene likely to provoke strong reactions in young audiences.
The film is desperately sad, but also powerful because it is executed so simply. The dialogue is economical and the themes are powerful, yet it never crosses into the realm of melodrama. In A Separation, as in life, small things create vast and potentially disastrous ripples. Farhadi has likened his film to a detective story, but one in which a central disaster occurs from a steady accumulation of small errors and confusions rather than any premeditated act.
A Separation is a highlight of many splendid offerings being screened across the country for National Schools Film Week (15-26 October or 1-9 November, depending on your location), such as Berlin '36, Miss Bala, The Class and Last Train Home. Now in its 17th year, the festival is on track to top the 2,600 screenings to more than 470,000 young people that took place in 2011. More than 95 per cent of the films on offer to secondary schools will be foreign language or independent.
Many have been chosen by teachers who are consulted ahead of the creation of the final festival programme, and most are supplemented with online resources, lectures and question and answer sessions. All are likely to be valuable support for a range of curriculum subjects in the classroom.
Jerome Monahan is a teacher and freelance writer and journalist. He provides Inset and pupil enrichment workshops in schools both nationally and internationally.