Israelis flock to see film produced by arch-foe

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli newspapers warn daily of the Iranian nuclear threat, but for the past week and a half, Israelis filmgoers have packed movie theaters to watch a drama set in Tehran.

"A Separation," a domestic drama directed by Iranian Asghar Farhadi, bested an Israeli rival and three others on Sunday to win the award for best foreign film.

Israelis were rooting hard for their own Oscar contender, Joseph Cedar's "Footnote," a Talmudic scholar saga. But their interest in "A Separation" was piqued by the rare glimpse it offered into the living rooms of a country they regard as a threat to their very survival.

"It's very well acted, exceptionally well written and very moving," said Yair Raveh, film critic for Israel's leading entertainment magazine, Pnai Plus. "Ultimately you don't think about nuclear bombs or dictators threatening world peace. You see them driving cars and going to movies and they look exactly like us."

Israel, like the West, accuses Iran of using its nuclear program as a cover to build bombs, and is afraid they would be turned against the Jewish state. Tehran insists it is producing energy, not weapons.

"A Separation" takes viewers far away from the nuclear showdown, chronicling the drama of an Iranian woman who wants to divorce her husband because he refuses to move abroad with her, preferring to stay behind to tend to his ailing father.

The Oscar buzz, the faceoff with an Israeli contender and glowing reviews have drawn an impressive 30,000 Israeli filmgoers since "A Separation" opened here in mid-February.

Ticket buyers stood in a long line on Sunday night at the Lev Smadar movie theater in Jerusalem. Omer Dilian, manager of the theater's cafe, said "A Separation" has drawn hundreds of viewers, even on weeknights.

Rina Brick, 70, said she was surprised by the humaneness of the Iranian bureaucrats portrayed in the film.

"Our image of how Iran works is less democratic than we see here," she said. "The judge, the police, everyone behaves as if they are in a Western country."

Rivka Cohen left Iran at age 15. Now 78, Cohen said she was struck by Tehran's modernity, which jarred with the image of black-clad women and religious conservatism that has become iconic of Iran.

"I was surprised by the way people lived in their houses," Cohen said. "Everyone had a fridge and a washing machine."

"A Separation" is shown mostly at the seven theaters owned by Lev Cinemas. Lev Cinemas CEO Guy Shani said the heated atmosphere over Iran's nuclear program has helped to draw viewers.

"We are being helped a lot by the press in Israel," Shani said. He said all the screenings in Lev theaters were sold out last Friday and Saturday.

Raveh, the film critic, said Israelis historically have been drawn to see movies produced by enemy countries, including Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq — also off-limits to Israeli visitors.

"We like to take a look at what happens across the borders," Raveh said.

In 1986, the late Israeli director Rafi Bukai broke cinematic ground here with his sympathetic, multi-dimensional look at "the enemy" in his 1986 film about an encounter between Egyptian and Israeli soldiers right after the 1967 war, Avanti Popolo.

But the broader political context can never totally fade.

On Monday, Iranian state TV described the country's foreign film Oscar win as a victory over Israel.

And Moshe Amirav, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said he "didn't stop thinking about the bomb the whole time" he was watching "A Separation."

"I said, what a contrast that we see this Iranian film with such admiration, and then when we leave we think about how they want to kill us," Amirav said.

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