In December of 2011, I hosted a preview showing in New Jersey of Asghar Farhadi's A Separation for an audience of approximately four hundred film-savvy professionals and retirees, predominantly Jewish. Before the show, I asked how many had ever seen an Iranian film; only a few hands went up. Two hours later, the audience overwhelmingly voted it the best film they'd seen in the season.
Their reaction mirrored my own first exposure to Iranian cinema twenty years ago, when an editor asked me to attend the first festival of post-revolutionary Iranian films held in New York. What had I expected? Well, given that Iran was an Islamic theocracy containing at least some citizens who peri-odically rush CNN's cameras with fists brandished as they immolate an effigy of some hapless repre-sentative of the "Great Satan," I thought I would find a cinema both obvious and crude, although perhaps earnest and well-intended. What I found was film after film of astonishing sophistication and ar-tistic originality, with a principled and impassioned humanism that recalled the Italian neorealists and made most Western films seem mechanistic and cynically amoral by comparison.