Thursday, March 22, 2012

review: A Separation

A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi)

Without engaging in any sort of geopolitical diatribe, it feels safe to say that working in Iran's film industry is not the simplest of endeavours. The political and cultural climate of the country has created a strange hybrid of permissiveness and clampdowns on those artists who fancy themselves filmmakers. The image the rest of the world is left with is that the domestic success of one's picture depends on how culturally safe and in accordance with law the story and ideas are. The controversial story surrounding Jafar Panahi is one clear example in which the artist was stifled in the most extreme degree, while another, more nuanced situation is that of Asghar Farhadi's latest project, the Oscar winning A Separation, which has been both praised and loathed on home soil.

The film begins simply enough, but soon evolves into something far more complex, both thematically and with regards to its narrative. The viewer first meets a married couple, Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) as they state their claims to a judge concerning a potential divorce. Clearly, not everything is rosy in their lives, with Simin wanting to move to Europe and Nader adamantly arguing his desires to remain in their home country. The real issue concerns their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), more accurately, which parent shall have custody over her. This little episode goes unresolved (for the moment), both Nader and Simin leave the court to resume their lives, which is when the film truly thrusts into gear. Nader, a full time employee, currently lives in an apartment with his elderly, severely handicapped father while his daughter Termeh is currently in school, thus compelling him to hire a house keeper, Razieh (Sareh Bayat). When Nader has reason to believe that Razieh has not only stolen some money but also slackened in her duties towards Nader's incapacitated father, the stress on the family's life mounts only further.

Someone, anyone's apolitical attitude can be deemed in the eyes of others as in fact political. Whether or not this was writer-director Asghar Farhadi's intent, that is, to be political by actually making an Iranian film with a narrative that really has no political pretences on its surface, is anybody's guess. Point being, A Separation is a strong, confident film in how it unabashedly depicts the trials and tribulations of individuals who, had they acted out with just a bit more tact and sensitivity to the issues others faced, would not find themselves locking horns as viciously as they do. Farhadi weaves a tale ripe with honesty, yet ironically does so by withholding critical information from the audience. People makes mistakes, although in the early goings the reasons for their blunders remain mysterious, so as to continuously keep the audience from aligning themselves too willingly on side or the other. Despite that this storytelling tactic might come across as a gimmick to some, Farhadi's film feels incredibly genuine from start to finish, with nary a false note to rustle the feathers of those who enjoy a good drama. This is true to the extent that, even by the film's climactic scenes when the full versions of everyone's stories are revealed, there is still no clearer interpretation as to who deserved more or less scorn than the others. The qualities and faults of all the characters, except for the daughter Termeh (who is written more plainly than the adults) are split nearly perfectly down the middle. 


This 'genuine' quality which has been referred to is brought to life with, first, the finely tuned story as described in the previous paragraph, as well with a cast of dedicated, talented performers and Farhadi's attentive eye, by which it is meant the camera's frame. So far as the cast is concerned, the actors deliver believable, nuanced performances that help solidify the feeling that A Separation could very well have been an actual documentary. It is tempting to say that those hoping for some more clear cut character development which separate the good from the bad (or the slightly better from the slightly worse) will not benefit from any wish fulfilment. The only possible shame is that one of these marvellous actors, Leila Hatami, who plays Nader's wife seeking a divorce, receives considerable less screen time than Meyman Moadj and Sareh Bayat. Hatami does however make the most of whatever screen she is awarded, with a performance denoting the character's exasperation with the current familial strains, which have now been compounding by accusations of physical abuse launched onto Nader after a vigorous argument with Razieh. Even though he relation to Nader is not what it once was, she still opts to assist in whatever capacity she can, thus suppressing any assumptions that she was just a career oriented woman who had dropped any emotional bonds she owed Nader. Leila Hatami plays this sort of ambiguity to perfection, as does her on screen husband, Peyman Moadi, equally adept at portraying a character whom the audience is never entirely certain if they should admire or feel cold towards. He too is under the duress of multiple, simultaneous commitments, the most important being his daughter's education, his ailing father's well being and his job, the earnings of which help support the former two. What is most striking about Nader and Simin is how proud they are. Not proud in the sense of attachment to a nationality or religion, but a sort of pride one finds in strong willed characters. They both love, they both wish their loved ones well, but each is also tremendously powerful in character and rarely willing to give into opposition when in the midst of a heated discussion.

As previously stated, the camera and how it is used is an equally powerful tool making A Separation feel as genuine as possible. Much like how the actual narrative evenly divides characters' strengths and flaws , so does the extent to which Farhadi carefully employs the ever popular hand held cinematography. It is not so shaky as to provide nausea, in fact, while distinctly recognizable it is actually quite well controlled, bridging, if slightly, the gap between faux-documentary and something more traditionally artistic. The overall look is less artificially stylized than it is observational. Even so, the director will occasionally make some deliberate selections in what to show and what not to show in order for the sense of purveying sense of mystery as to who is ultimately being more truthful than the rest. Described as such, A Separation sounds like a strange mixture of storytelling styles which maybe should not coalesce as well as they do, but who are we to complain when the results are as compelling?

Lastly, there is the matter of Farhadi's decision to tell, yes, a dramatic story with very emotional implications, but one that does not, in truth, espouse any staunchly political agendas. Films like Offside and Persepolis for example, both tremendously well received internationally, certainly had intentions that went beyond merely telling good stories. Not so with A Separation, which instead brings to the screen several realities of Iranian culture, like when Razieh, unsure as to whether or not she should undress Nader's husband who has wet himself (an act which might be deemed immoral in Islamic culture), decides to call kind of moral-ethical questions 'hotline'. She simply does it because he character is unsure of where on the morality spectrum such an act lies. It is not meant to produce a laugh, nor is it meant to have non Iranian's somehow draw the conclusion of how silly the country is. When one's country can be, at times, as staunchly traditional as Iran attempts to be while wrestling with the insatiable urge, among many in the populace, to modernize the culture, it can assumed that services like a moral hotline will spring up.

By the film's end, the viewer will have been treated to a kind of whodunnit that actually functions more like a careful observation of contemporary Iran, but even then said observation is not trying to be very political, at least not overtly. It is a film definitely worth checking out.


Jessica said...

For me the movie was quite political but from the reactions of the rest of the world it seems that I'm pretty much alone in seeing it this way.
I see it as a story about a separation from a country. People who want a reliable court system, people who want freedom of speech and a decent life for their daughters, offering possibilities and not just opression have no other choice but to leave the country, as much as it pains them. Iran is modern in the way that it has cellphones, but the system the people live under is medieval. That's what I brought from it.
I'm glad you're mentioning Panahi in your review. I wish there was more focus on the situation of him and other film makers in Iran. Just because Iran gets an Oscar it doesn't mean it's OK to imprison your film makers.

edgarchaput said...

@Jessica: I have to admit to having not picked up on the link between the Simin's attempt to leave the country with the desire of real people to leave the country for political reasons. Maybe it's because the film does not attempt to give the character political reasons to leave that that bulb did not light up in my head.

Then again, I mention in the review that the film is not overtly political, meaning that there very well could be some powerful ideas lurking just beneath the surface.