Film review: A Separation

A Separation
Jodaeiye Nader az Simin
Independently produced by Farhadi

STARRING Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi
WRITTEN BY Asghar Farhadi
PRODUCED BY Asghar Farhadi
DIRECTED BY Asghar Farhadi

SHOT BY Mahmood Kalari
EDITED BY Hayedeh Safiyari
MUSIC BY Sattar Oraki

Screened 2011-12-02

In the wake of the Green Revolution, Simin has had enough: it is time to leave Iran. She is denied a divorce from her husband, who seems willing to talk but refuses to leave his ailing live-in father, and is reluctant to take their daughter Termeh, who keeps her nose to the academic grindstone while avoiding the large questions floating between adults above her. Simin moves out and Nader must hold his family together during this period of indefinite uncertainty. Nader’s immediate necessity is securing a caregiver for his father, which appears to be awfully difficult in Tehran, and as soon as he finally does this an arbitrary misunderstanding leaves him throwing the lower class housekeeper out, accused of theft. And the rest of the film is spent handling this unfortunate encounter and its repercussions, which widen and gain momentum like ripples that become waves: Nader’s bureaucratic pissing match with the housekeeper’s histrionic husband, the pitiful tale of the desperate and foolish housekeeper herself, the existing marital tensions now brought to a boil between Nader and Simin, the precipitous physical condition of Nader’s father, the welfare of the daughter, public shame, and baffling legal distraction. Can Nader hold it together? Not really. In the end we remember that everybody is trying their hardest, we cannot turn on one another, but the system we’ve constructed often does not serve the interests of the individual. Alas Nader, alas Simin. Then there’s the housekeeper and her husband, representing the desperate Iranian lower class, who cannot help but hurt others when a single lapse one’s in self-preservation can lead to ruin. What’s alarming is the ease at which Nader’s seemingly stable middle class life is compromised by brief contact with Iran’s lower class.

What can I say about this film? I can say that every critic in the world seems to like it more than I did (though I liked it just fine), leaving me with a counter-reaction. The film did not emotionally affect me in a pronounced way – is this because of a ‘lost in translation’ disconnect? A lack of contextual knowledge? Or because the film itself left me wanting? (I do believe it’s the third option) Some research provided me with context and then my appreciation grew, though I will not forget the viewing experience; Farhadi simply left me wanting, enhanced by the topical nature of the story. This makes it sound as if I’m being specifically critical of Farhadi – whose career I do not know, though I did groan at missing 2009’s About Elly when I had the chance. I took from the story: “In Iran right now, people need one another more than ever, and are being driven apart.” Any messages about frustrating civic bureaucracy are relevant, sure, but film of the year? Story exceeds craft here and the story is heavily topical, so the more you are connected to Iran, the better. Perhaps I can say that the realism in Farhadi’s film doesn’t feel as visceral as such seen in the Romanian New Wave, the Dardenne brothers, Andrea Arnold, etc. The visual schema isn’t exactly riveting. The screenplay is functional. And much of the performance involves argument and one person shouting over another. So, really, I can only assume the praise exists because the film’s message is just that important. Perhaps it is.

Oh, and, um… A Separation is the first Iranian film to win the Golden Bear at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival. Now don’t my comments seem silly?

written by David Ashley