' ' Cinema Romantico: A Separation

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Separation

Astonishing and pulverizing, "A Separation", Iran's rightfully ballyhooed entry into the Oscar Best Foreign Film derby, has a run time of just a little over two hours but is so fiercely urgent it zips by in a blink - albeit the most overwhelming blink you've ever experienced. Writer/Director Asghar Farhadi aims for a distinct documentary style by forgoing a musical score until the last second and handheld filming (that thankfully is fairly restrained), yet it never feels like a documentary because it never feels like a film is unfolding before your eyes. It feels like it is all happening in real time and you are a helpless, paralyzed observer, peering around corners of the modest homes, drab and busy police precincts and hospitals where much of its action takes place.

It opens with, as the title implies, the separation of Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hitami). In a single-take sequence that moves so breathlessly the viewer will have a difficult time watching both the subtitles and the actors' expressions and gestures, a judge refuses to grant them a desired divorce. Simin wants to leave for a more stable country. Nader, understandably, does not on account of his Alzheimer's-stricken father (Shirin Yazdanbakhsh) for whom he must care. Dismissing their disaffection as petty, the judge refuses the divorce. Thus, they instead separate, and while the separation at this point ceases to be the primary source of plot, everything that happens can in one way or another, whether fair or not, be directly traced back to it.

Simin decides to move in with her parents. Their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), stays with her father, perhaps as a last ditch effort to convince them to stay together. With Simin gone, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a friend of his wife's who comes with a young daughter, a deep religious conviction and a hot-headed husband, to care for his house and most especially his father while he is gone at work for the day. For simple but terrible reasons this review shall not reveal, things reach an impass and Nader and Razieh wind up squaring off in court with Nader facing a charge that carries several years in prison.

Unfolding like a fantastic work of fiction, it builds a story by involving you in the situations of its many respective characters while simultaneously layering the narrative with bits and pieces that all crucially fit in at varying intervals as the film progresses. But they never seem like ill-fitting "clues", partially because there is no music to emotionally cue us and partially because they are all gracefully woven into the actual everyday lives of these people. Farhadi creates a sensation that I can't ever recall experiencing at a film, one in which a particular event early in the proceedings becomes of the utmost importance later, an event that is remembered differently by different characters, and while I remembered the event and thought I remembered it one way I realized as it was brought back up that I too now could not exactly recall how it had played out. That, to the say least, is mind blowing bit of moviemaking acumen.

There isn't one character or another for whom you necessarily root because it's set up so that each character's argument from his or her point of view makes sense and earns a certain measure of sympathy, even if all is not, as it cannot be, as it seems. Secrets are waiting, though they are not of the bargain basement "gasp!!!" variety. They are on account of truly real human desperation which is shown again and again in the scenes before the balding judge (Babak Karimi), who is forever looking down at his endless paperwork, delegating, displaying an almost incomprehensible level of patience.

At one point he asks someone to open a window in his cramped office. It's all become much, much too tense. He needs a little air. And so will you. The film begins, you go down and you disappear. It's not entertaining so much as it is relentlessly gripping. It is worth all the hype in the movie review forest.


Andrew K. said...

Nice assessment of the film. It
is a thought provoking one, but not a sanctimonious one, which is why I like it so much. Calm, sedate, smart and BRILLIANTLY acted. There are so many issues being addressed that at the end I'm devastated and for so many reasons (that particular scene where a certain husband loses it and stars hitting himself? Just so very moving.)

Nick Prigge said...

Yeah, there is a lot that gets addressed in this film. A LOT. And yet for that all that's going on, it feels so intimate.

Andy Buckle said...

I got chills reading this. I thought this film was amazing. All I could say at the end to my friend was "Wow. That was perfect." It has been six months since I saw it, and it has a release here March 1. Can't wait to see it again.
You get it spot on re: the feeling you get when you think back to that event, and you yourself aren't sure how you remember it to have happened. Covers so much of Iranian culture - their justice system, social class, religion etc. Great write-up.

Nick Prigge said...

It's interesting you mention the culture. I think you addressed that in your review, right? And Andrew did, too. And when I reflect on it I see you're right. But when I was watching it I was just so caught up none of that really even occured to me. In our roundtable (that I'm pretty sure no one else read) we talked about getting so lost you don't think about the film critically and that definitely happened to me during this one.

Andrew K. said...

That roundtable was pure a classic, sir (puffs on pipe). But, it's so weird about the cultural issues which I did mention in my review but didn't hit on me at first. But, after the film I'm extrapolating my thoughts and I think about things like that phonecall Razieh makes, or the way Simin has to actually wheedle her husband into agreeing with her, or the very fact that Simin wants to LEAVE Iran. It's so subtle, and considering the strictures of Iran it's so bizarre (but so, so VERY awesome) that they submitted THIS as their contender for the Foreign Language prize when in some ways it's a damning view of their culture.

Nick Prigge said...

That's why some of those Iranian filmmakers truly have guts.

Derek Armstrong said...

Yeah, I love this film. Ranked #1 for the year for me.

I have nothing more to add.

(This is a joke, since I wrote essentially the same thing just now on my comment for your Another Earth review. I'm saying this for the benefit of your other commenters, not for you, because you presumably know I just wrote this comment.)

Actually, I do have one thing to add. Andrew, that's a terrific observation about how Iran chose this movie as a representation of itself. I really have to read up more on Iran's official outlook vis-a-vis films. On the one hand, they support this film, which is so clearly at least mildly critical of Iran. On the other hand, the government is routinely imprisoning filmmakers for making films -- in fact, the lead actress in the little-seen (but seen by me) My Tehran for Sale was recently given a sentence of something like 100 lashes. That film was perhaps more overtly critical of Iran, but it also features a character who wants to emigrate from the country, just as A Separation does. It's a country of contradictions, to be sure.

Derek Armstrong said...

You know, Kevin21's points should not be discounted either.

Nick Prigge said...

"A Separation" does include very subtle symbolism pertaining to "Jordan Heels".