Iranian Treasures: A Separation and Caspian Strike Gold

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Memento Films International
Don't shut the door on this one.

The Dinner: Fesenjan (and more!) at Caspian (1806 136th Place Northeast, Bellevue)

The Movie: A Separation at the Egyptian (805 E Pine)

The Screenplate: The Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film is usually a gimmie for nations like Italy or France, which makes 2011 something of an interesting year. Belgian Bullhead, Canadian Monsiur Lazhar, Polish In Darkness and Israeli Footnote are all among the diverse selection for the best non-English film (Okay, Isreal's nom isn't exactly a shocker). That is, of course, excluding the surprising Iranian favorite, Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, hailing from behind the ever-mysterious curtain of the Axis of Evil. This week, I discovered another Persian treasure, although this one hailed from behind the curtain of a (equally mysterious?) Bellevue office park. Just as with A Separation, said restaurant, Caspian (not to be confused with the U District's Caspian Grill) presents a wealth of Middle Eastern authenticity--an eye-opening experience for a gringo like myself.

A Separation begins with an argument between husband and wife, Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) in a Teheran courthouse--the site of most of the drama throughout the film. Simin wants to leave Iran with her daughter, eleven-year-old Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), while Nader refuses to go so he can care for his father, who suffers from Alzheimer's. Simin, determined to get a divorce, moves to her parents' house when her application is rejected, leaving her husband and daughter on their own. Without Simin to look after his father during the day, Nader hires a female caretaker, devout Razieh (Sareh Bayat). It only takes a day for Razieh to become overwhelmed by the work, which conflicts with both her religion, and position as a wife and mother. When Nader returns home one day to find the house seemingly abandoned and his father tied to the bed, near death, he shoves Razieh out the door on her return. Razieh, incidentally, is pregnant...and miscarries. She and her husband bring Nader to court under the charge of murder. Certainly a worthy opponent in the category of its second Oscar nomination, for Best Original Screenplay, A Separation is masterful in its pacing of understated drama, subtle politics, and a cavalcade of courtroom activity.

Speaking of masterful pacing, Caspian has this category down to a tee. Dinner begins with a salad, and if you choose an appetizer of, perhaps, hummus, or the Middle Eastern eggplant equivalent, Baba Ghanush, you'll be sufficiently tied over until the arrival of the main course. A delivery of the "Persian version" of a cheese plate, complete with fresh, assorted veggies, was enough to keep up the momentum before my order of Fesenjan appeared. Described on the menu as "exotic pomegranate molasses with finely crushed walnuts," paired with basmati topped with sunny saffron rice, Fesenjan makes you want to pack your bags and leave dreary Western food behind for good. With a thick sweetness that was thankfully diluted by the rice, Fesenjan was a riveting experience of flavors completely unfamiliar to my pallet, just as A Separation's Tehran was to my American eyes.

When director Farhadi delicately received his Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, he gave a simple bow to presenter Madonna (shaking hands with a woman you're not related to in Iran is a sin), and said, "...Now I just prefer to say something about my people. I think they are a truly peace-loving people." Indeed, not once will you flinch at A Separation, where war and tyranny aren't mentioned, and the incredible sense of humanity does justice to a misunderstood nation and people. Nader, in the thicket of an argument with Razieh's husband, says eloquently, "I have a sense of humanity," and his words reverberate. In fact, truly no movie in 2011 had characters with as much humanity as those in A Separation.

Caspian's competitors might as well toss in the towel, too. Desserts of rose water, honeyed donuts, sticky baghlava, and saffron ice cream make you feel like an Assyrian king. My biggest complaint of the night was merely that the lights were far too bright for the first half of dinner, but this was amended later when they were dimmed for better atmosphere during the shift to evening hours. Indeed, Caspian isn't a restaurant for an intimate date; most of the tables are large, and occupied by families and groups of friends. Ethnic backgrounds varied considerably amongst patrons, and it quickly became obvious that it didn't matter if you spoke Farsi, or (like me) struggled to pronounce the words on the menu; the staff felt almost like distant cousins, strangers with a warm exuding of camaraderie. If you do go with just a date, you'll happily be welcomed into the family.

Don't expect a happy family from A Separation, though. With incredible performances by some of Iran's youngest talent, as well as convincing pieces by the adults, A Separation touches something tender and astoundingly universal. When it closed, the audience at the Egyptian lingered, as if waiting for something more. The subtle, heartbreaking beauty is that it wasn't offered.

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