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A Separation

“A Separation” is a brilliantly plotted morality play, a complicated (and thus honest) family story, and a courtroom drama all at the same time.  It’s a movie that sneaks up on you and draws you in, then refuses to let you go.  This is great cinema.

Peyman Moadi plays a man who has a lot of problems, and is about to get one big one.   His marriage is on the rocks, and he’s caring for his father, who is in late-stage Alzheimer’s.  When his wife moves out of the house, he must care for his teenage daughter, his elderly father while still managing to pay the bills.  So he hires a housekeeper.

She is Sareh Bayat, and she really shouldn’t be doing the job.  It’s against her religion to care for an elderly man; bathing him is completely inappropriate.  Also, she is pregnant.  But her husband is unemployed, they are desperate for money, and she has no other choices.   When she leaves one day to visit the doctor, she ties the old man to the bed while he is sleeping and locks the door.

What happens next drives the rest of the movie, and I don’t want to give too much. Let me just say that everything seems absolutely plausible, and that’s one of the truly remarkable things about this film.  Things build from a set of desperate but manageable circumstances into a giant court case, in which one of the characters is accused of murder.  Is he innocent?  Was he provoked?  Would it be better to go ahead and admit guilt, even if he was innocent, to protect his family and bring the whole thing to an end?  “A Separation” is tightly written and none of the questions have easy answers.   Sometimes it feels like Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,”  others like Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.”   Figuring out who is right and who is wrong is not easy, or perhaps even possible.

Peyman Moadi is at the center of everything, and he is really excellent in the role.  I was rooting for him from the beginning, though I could understand how someone would watch this film and choose a different character to root for.  He is stubborn and honorable, determined to take care of his family and maintain his honor against incredible odds and terrible circumstances.  I was impressed from the get-go that he wouldn’t leave his father in order to seek a better life for his daughter in a different country.  That same sense of obstinate integrity — that belief that who you are matters more than what kind of things happen to you — drives the film.  He is a flawed character, and surely makes one or two less than honorable decisions along the way.  And there are certainly moments when it seems like a bit of compromise might serve him well.  But he sticks to his guns, and knows exactly who he is trying to be, even when he fails.

Asghar Farhadi wrote and directed “A Separation,” and while I don’t know whether he wrote it all at once or slaved over it meticulously over a long period, I’m impressed by how seamless the screenplay is.  It moves along one step at a time, drawing you in, letting things develop, until you find yourself deeply invested in these characters’ situation, and amazed at how intense the film has become.  As the director, Farhadi gets great performances from his actors, and uses a cinéma vérité style to place this right in the middle of modern-day Iran.  The picture he gives us of that country is different, but not contradictory, to the one we so often see on the news these days.  These characters aren’t concerned with nuclear weapons and Israel and civil rights; at least not overtly.  They are trying to live their lives as best they can, within the culture they are situated.  Religious law and custom and culture certainly do play a role, but this is not a film about what it’s like to be Iranian in the 21st century.  Those kind of films bore me.  This one held me in rapt attention.  So it’s remarkable how well it conveys its time and place without calling attention to it.

For a movie about domestic problems and a long, complicated court case, “A Separation” is a surprisingly compelling drama.  I liked it much more than I expected to, and look forward to watching it again in the near future.  This is one of the best films of 2011.

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  1. Baddu said

    Your analysis of this great and multi-layered piece of literature and art is the best I have read so far.  You are the first observer to notice that the impartiality shown by director towards the characters in the movie does not mean that he is in fact impartial.  He only puts his trust in the intelligence of his audience to draw the right conclusion from what is presented to them, whether directly, by inference, by symbolism or by metaphor and allegory.  He purposefully keeps the scenes and dialogues minimal and tight, while leaving open ends to allow for multiple takes by the audience to fit their own level of complexity and power of analysis.  At the same time he leaves enough clues behind to shed light on the path of those who would want to unearth his own point of view!  This is where the “Circumstances in Iran” force him to create a new and magnificent art form,  being capable of appreciation by people with totally different mindsets: from some Iranian officials to people in the Whitehouse to completely apolitical citizens of East and West.  Farhadi must be reveling in this raveling atmosphere of euphoria and confusion!  
    Not to spoil things for the possible viewers, I only suggest a simple analysis of the first scene. Most critics have summarized  that the choice is between caring for the demented father and staying or planning a better upbringing for their daughter and moving to Canada on an immigration visa, extended to educated Iranians, with forty days of validity left.  But a more attentive viewing of the first scene shows that Nader mentions that his reasons for not wanting to leave Iran have already been discussed, that Simin knows about them very well and that they are numerous.  Being challenged to name just one of those reasons in front of the judge, he mentions his father’s need of care.  Simin retorts immediately that this is only an excuse!  O.K., then there must be real reasons for not leaving Iran which neither partner is keen to disclose in front of the judge and of course the censors and possibly the media.  To confirm this deeper interpretation the director presents a couple of clues in the last scene at the divorce hearing, to show that the forty days deadline for the visa is over and the father who had heart-lung problem beside being demented has already passed away.  And yet the divorce is going ahead and Termeh is asked to choose sides. 
    Could the real reason for the separation be the patriotic streak being triggered in the principled and proud Nader, in the face of intimidation (economic sanctions) and threat of aggression (bombing Iran) being drummed up by the West against his homeland?  He does not have to be an Ahmadinejad fan to want his country not to become another Iraq or Afghanistan.  If Termeh should decide to stay with his father, then it is with the hope of helping to build a better Iran her mother could return to.  This viewpoint is supported when in another scene he accuses Simin of being a coward who tries to flee the country and not stand up to the challenges.  Nader obviously does not think that Termeh would get a better upbringing attached to a cowardly, though loving, mother who pays her way out of obstacles (the piano scene) instead of standing up for what is right and wrong.  Is Canadian free ‘education’ and free healthcare worth the political apathy and hedonism being nurtured by politicians and the mainstream media in all countries of North America and ‘the coalition of the unwilling’? Should telling lies be a luxury enjoyed by politicians, while the young are kept innocent only to become future compliant voters? Or is Termeh really growing up when she learns that even his morally correct father may be hiding some truth from her and in her turn tell an obvious lie in order to survive?
    I am sure there are other interpretations for the ‘real’ reasons of the separation. This is the sign of all long-lasting pieces of art like Shakespeare plays or Hafiz poems that allow of fresh interpretations according to culture and epoch.  Decades from now people would still see this film and discuss its hidden context and its relation to what by then would be history of its times.
    Little doubt on whose side Farhadi’s real sympathies lie, it is sufficient to monitor carefully his Oscar acceptance speech and his later assertion that he shall stay in Iran even if conditions there deteriorate.

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