120 of 126 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
The Iranian film "A Separation" will most likely win this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and has already won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film as well as best film at the Berlin International Film Festival. "A Separation" is writer and director Asghar Farhadi's fifth film, and it's the one that will establish him as one of the world's most brilliant storytellers.
The title ostensibly refers to an urban middle class couple who have separated from each other; English teacher Simin has gotten a visa to emigrate to the West, but her husband Nader, who works in a bank, refuses to leave his father who has Alzheimer's. They have an 11-year-old daughter Termeh (played by the director's daughter) who doesn't want her parents to leave each other, and so chooses to stay with her father, knowing that Simin won't leave Iran without her.
But the title also refers to the rural-urban, traditional-modern, moral-utilitarian divides that coalesce to form the main conflict in this movie. After Simin leaves to live with her parents, Nader hires a villager named Razieh to look after his father. Looking after a male patient with dementia is too much for the pregnant Razieh, who must commute three hours to work. When Nader's father soils his pants, the profoundly pious Razieh has a crisis of faith, and seeks religious counsel to see if God will permit her to change the poor man's pants. She's underpaid and exhausted, but ultimately she's bound to the family's misfortunes by her own: her husband has lost his job as a cobbler, has to take medication for the consequent depression, and is in and out of debtors' prison. One day, Nader returns home to find Razieh absent and his father tied to the bed, and he becomes so distraught and angry that he fires Razieh by pushing her out the door. Then Nader and Simin find themselves in a hospital where they learn that Razieh has had a miscarriage. The two families entangle themselves in a legal fight to determine who was culpable for Razieh's miscarriage, and in the process dig themselves deeper and deeper into a moral conundrum.
Farhadi manages several neat tricks with this movie. "A Separation" is morally complex without being morally confusing, is dramatically tense and emotionally powerful without being melodramatic and emotionally overwhelming, and is sympathetic to all characters and viewpoints while affirming the power of truth and love.
Farhadi accomplishes this by building strong contrasts and comparisons between the three sets of characters. There's the two wives Simin and Razieh, while standing with their husbands and across from each other, nevertheless are devout to the "truth" (Simin to a modern and metaphysical "truth," Razieh to the Koran), and thus stood together throughout the film.
Then there's the two families' daughters who live in different worlds. One scene in a court of law outside the judge's chambers captures how irreconcilable this chasm really is: While waiting for their parents, Termeh is pre-occupied studying for her final exams with the help of her grandmother, while Razieh's 6-year-old daughter looks on with sad bright eyes, having never been inside a classroom and knowing she'll never get into one. But despite their differences they're both united by a child-like attachment to what is right, what is fair, and what is true - an innocence that makes them equally suffer as the film sinks into its moral murkiness.
What ultimately drives the plot of the film is the conflict between the two husbands, who are tragically alike. Razieh's husband Hodjat is consumed with anger at his poverty and powerlessness, and he becomes more volatile and violent as he seeks justice for his wife and his unborn child, but feels helpless against a modern middle class urban society that seems to have united against his family. Simin's husband Nader is consumed by pride, which ironically makes this secular man a fanatic, as he seeks to prove his innocence, even if he has to lie, conspire, and abandon his wife to do so.
Besides using vivid characterization, Farhadi also manages to balance the complexity, contradictions, and conflicts by filming minimally in interiors. Every scene is either shot inside an apartment or a hospital or a court or a school or a car. He doesn't use wide angles to allow the audience to breathe a bit, nor does he attempt to control mood with music, color, and lighting. But the film's claustrophobia works to the story's advantage, magnifying and reflecting the tension and the anxiety in the characters themselves.
What ultimately makes this movie work so well then are the individual performances of all the actors. In his book The Ends of the Earth, Robert Kaplan argues that Westerners have a misconception of Iranians as cold and aloof Muslims, while in reality they're poetic and passionate Persians - which is perhaps why they often make such gifted actors.
Towards the climax of the movie, Simin has negotiated a truce with Hodjat to pay "blood money" for the miscarriage so that the feuding can stop its downward spiral. Simin and Termeh, who is now living with her mother, go tell the good news to Nader in his apartment. Arguing that by paying he would profess his guilt, he refuses, and Simin walks out angrily. She attempts to take Termeh with her, but Termeh refuses. The 11 year-old fears his father's lies and equivocations, but above all she fears losing him, and so she tries to convince his father to take the deal. Then Nader says to her in that cold calculating manner only he's capable of: "If you think I'm guilty go get your mother, and I'll do what she wants."
Termeh's facial response powerfully captures so many hues and shades: It's at the same time loud and numb, stunned and aware, hurt and empowered. That one-second facial expression, caught between crying and laughing, reveals that if no one else has changed, she at least has. And she now knows that no matter how much she loves her father he's lost to her and to himself.
"A Separation" is a bold masterpiece of Iranian film-making.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
Whitt Patrick Pond
- Published on Amazon.com
A Separation, an Iranian film written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, is an intricate family drama set in current-day Tehran. It won both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for 2011, and was also nominated for Academy's Best Original Screenplay Award as well.
The film begins with a couple explaining to a judge why they want a divorce. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to emigrate to another country where she feels they can have a better life for themselves and, more importantly, for their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). They had filed the needed paperwork months ago and recently it finally came through. But her husband Nader (Peyman Mooadi), who had previously been agreeable to the idea, refuses to go, ostensibly because of his father who is suffering from Alzheimer's and now needs someone with him at all times. Simin, fearing the opportunity may never come again, is determined to go regardless and wants to take Termeh with her. But under Iranian law, she needs Nader's permission for that and he refuses to give it. So they feel that divorce is the only option left to them. The judge says that this is insufficient grounds for a divorce and refuses to approve their request, leaving them without any resolution to their problem. Simin, who had been looking after Nader's father, leaves their home and moves in with her family, while Termeh, who is in school, stays.
Their conflict becomes further complicated when Nader tries to find someone to look after his father while he is away at work. He cannot afford a professional caretaker, so he ends up hiring a woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayet) who is a friend of a cousin of his wife's. Complications arise almost immediately. Razieh, who has a young daughter and is pregnant with her second child, is reluctant to take the job but she desperately needs the money due to her hot-headed husband, Hodjat, (Shahab Hosseini) who is not only seemingly incapable of holding a job but is also being pursued by creditors. But it is soon clear that Nader, unwilling to see just how bad his father's Alzheimer's has become, has underestimated the level of assistance his father now needs, and on the first day Razieh has to contend with Nader's father soiling himself because he no longer realizes when he needs to go. The situation quickly deteriorates over the next couple of days and ends up in an argument between Nader, who comes home and finds his father alone and tied to the bed from which he has fallen, and Razieh who had left because she needed to go to the doctor. The argument ends up with Nader forcing Razieh from his apartment, and Razieh then falling on the stairs and ending up miscarrying. This escalates the conflict between the two families, with charges and counter-charges being filed and both husbands faced with being jailed.
What makes A Separation really work is the level of complexity that Farhadi brings out in the characters. There is no black-and-white here, no simplistic good-guys vs bad guys, only ordinary human beings having to deal with the kinds of problems that people all over the world have to deal with. For the most part, all of Farhadi's characters are people who are trying their best to do what they feel the right thing is, but who nonetheless are all too humanly flawed - pride and stubbornness being first and foremost - and who are not above trying to twist things in their favor even when in their heart of hearts they know they're doing the wrong thing. In lesser hands this would have been dealt with a comedic fashion, but in Farhadi's we are presented with realistic drama that everyone can relate to from their own lives.
There is also a subtleness present in A Separation which makes it both distinctly Iranian and yet universal at the same time. The dynamics of culture permeate the film and one gets a sense of just what it means to be an ordinary Iranian without the skewing political bombast and rhetoric which is all that most people ever see. The way in which the two families end up resolving their dispute in particular illustrates how different their culture is from ours. But at the same time, the characters in A Separation are universal in their lives, their situations and their human frailties as they try to cope with the same kinds of problems that people all over the world have to contend with. In Farhadi's characters, we see ourselves and/or people we know.
Nader is, as Simin says to the divorce judge at the beginning of the film, a decent man and a good father to their daughter, the latter illustrated in scenes where he pushes Termah to be confident and stand up for herself. And you can sympathize with Nader as he finds himself increasingly crushed by the need to try and care for his father. Two brief scenes are particularly poignant. In the first, where Nader and Simin are arguing before the judge, Simin tells Nader "Your father does not even know you!", to which Nader responds "But I know him!" And later, when he is alone and trying to get his father to change his clothes, and his father is no longer even aware enough to do anything but just sit like a lump, Nader struggles with the task, his father being too heavy even for him to handle alone, and finally he just breaks down weeping, realizing the impossibility of his situation, yet holding on to his father, unwilling to let go. But for all of his good intentions, Nader is all too humanly fallible as well. In the conflict over his possibly having caused Razieh's miscarriage, he makes statements which he knows are not true, most particularly claiming not to have known that she was pregnant. And when his daughter, Termeh, catches him on this, he puts the moral burden on her, asking if she wants her father to go to jail. And later, when Termeh ends up lying to the judge to support his lie, and Nader sees what his unwillingness to admit the truth is doing to her, he still gives in to weakness and lets the lie stand rather than risk the consequences of telling the truth.
But Nader is not the only character with human weaknesses. Simin tries to use Termeh as a way of getting Nader to go along with emigrating, just as Nader is using Termeh to keep Simin from emigrating. And at the same time, Termeh tries to manipulate the situation to keep her parents from breaking up. Hodjat, who is more flawed than any other character, tries to maniuplate the situation to get the money he needs to pay off his creditors. And even Razieh, who is the only one who is truly religious, is not above telling half-lies, partly out of pride and partly out of not wanting to admit being in the wrong.
In many ways, Razieh is one of the most intricately drawn characters in A Separation and serves to counter the common perception most people have of religious Iranians. Far from being the kind of militant shouting hard-liner we are presented with in the news, Razieh is simply someone who is devout in her faith and who is truly concerned with her everyday actions being proper within Islamic tenets. In an early scene where Nader's father has soiled himself, she calls her imam to ask whether or not it is proper for her to clean him up and change his clothes (to which the imam responds that yes, given the circumstances, it is proper for her to do so). Razieh is a person for whom sin is a very real thing with very real consequences, and this matters to her, even when doing the right thing comes with a heavy price. She reminded me very much of an aunt of mine who was a very strict Catholic. Again, this works for A Separation's universality, for even in secular societies we still have people - often in our own families - to whom this sort of thing still matters, and the film presents them in a way that we can relate to.
All of the actors give excellent performances, to the point that we feel that we're watching real people going through these crises in their daily lives rather than actors following a script. Payman Mooadi's Nader reveals much through his eyes and his expression, and while he works to keep his feelings under control, we see his inner turmoil on his face, particularly in the scenes where he knows he's setting the wrong example for his daughter, and worse, allowing his own weakness to emotionally blackmail her into doing what he's always tried to teach her is wrong. The same goes for Sarina Farhadi's Termeh, whose eyes show the hurt and disillusionment she feels after she lies to the judge to support her father's lie. And Shahab Hosseini's Hodjat is a subtle performance, making an unlikeable character at least somewhat sympathetic as he rails about, blaming everyone else for his troubles, by showing him to be a man who simply has no control over himself and is constantly being undone by his emotional impulses and bad judgment.
To his enormous credit, Farhadi does not give any of his characters easy outs for their problems. They do not get sudden magical insights, nor do they receive providential rescues. They must wrestle with them the way real people do and accept that the resolution, if it comes, may be far from satisfactory. We are reminded of this as the film ends, with Nader and Simin again outside the divorce judge's office, left waiting to find out which of them Termeh will decide to go with. The audience is left not knowing any more than they do. No tiy resolution, no neat Hollywood ending, just life the way it really is for most people.
Highly, highly recommended.