Thursday, February 9, 2012

'A Separation' is one of the year's best

This Oscar-nominated film takes a revealing look at life in Iran.

When western audiences first began to discover Iranian film, viewers were caught by the beauty and simplicity of stories that often focused on children, perhaps to avoid the stultifying intrusions of censors. Iranian film has evolved since then, and nothing stands as a better emblem of its potential maturity than A Separation, a powerful and emotionally involving drama about a husband and wife who separate and are then caught up in a legal battle involving the woman who takes care of the husband's aging father.

Though steeped in all manner of personal and social conflict, A Separation is one of those rare movies that respects every character's point of view, offering a complex and realistic portrait of characters operating under intense pressure: the urgent need to find custodial care for a demented father, the desire to open new opportunities for a daughter, the pain of a troubled marriage, the resentment bred by those who think society has pushed them toward the bottom and the sense of entitlement felt by a middle class that's not beyond condescension toward those assigned to lower status.

It's ironic, I suppose, thatA Separation -- nominated for Oscars as best foreign-language film and in the best original screenplay category -- arrives at a time when it's impossible to pick up a newspaper without reading about tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Those of us who've loved and championed Iranian film find it deeply disturbing that some of the country's finest filmmakers -- Jafar Panahi, for example -- are in jail. Others -- Abbas Kiarostami -- are working outside the country. It may not bring great joy to the likes of Ahmadinejad, but a movie such as A Separation has the kind of refreshing candor and authentic humanity that's at the core of exceptional drama.*

Director Asghar Farhadi begins the story with an Iranian couple mired in conflict. As A Separation unfolds, we start to suspect that this couple embodies many of the difficulties of life in Iran on both personal and political levels, which inevitably spill over into the realm of religion. These conflicts feel both familiar and strange, built on recognizable human frustrations, yet pushed to extremes in a society in which conflict resolution can be cumbersome.

The movie's crumbling marriage serves as a backdrop for everything else that transpires. Simin (Leila Hastami), a doctor, wants to find new opportunities abroad, presumably because of the way women are restricted in Iran. Simin wants to take her 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) with her. Her banker husband (Peyman Maadi) is willing to grant the divorce, but wants his daughter to remain in Iran.

Simin won't leave the country without Termeh, but she does leave her husband. She moves out of the couple's apartment and takes up residence with her parents.

Meanwhile, Maadi's Nader feels trapped by a sense of love and duty. He refuses to abandon his aging father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) who suffers from dementia and needs 24-hour care. Semin's departure leaves Nader, who works as a banker, in desperate need of someone to watch his father.

Eventually, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for his father. It doesn't take long for another conflict to emerge, this one between Nader and Razieh. This clash is bolstered by the staunch religious convictions of Razieh's resentful, unemployed husband (Shahab Hosseini). Razieh says she's uncomfortable with duties that include changing the clothes of Nader's incontinent father, something she views as improper and perhaps a violation of Islamic law.

I won't burden you with more plot description, but know that Farhadi weaves a tangled web of cross-purposes in which the movie's characters struggle to advance their various points of view. And don't think that Nader carries the torch for reason in the face of Islamic fundamentalism. He's a flawed man whose behavior contributes to his problems.

Farhadi also takes the characters through Tehran's legal bureaucracy as the parties seek redress. We begin to feel that life in Iran is beset by complications that prevent the movie's adults from attaining any sense of sustained equilibrium.

Farhadi provides enough information for us to understand each characters, although it's never easy to say who's right or wrong. Interestingly, the movie opens with both Simin and Nader pleading their case to an unseen judge, who's supposed to rule on their divorce. Let's just say, you wouldn't want to be that judge.

Given its complex scenario, it should come as no surprise that A Separation generates plenty of tension about the fates of its characters. Farhadi takes us into a highly stressed society that's full of irreconcilable conflict. That's a lot of thematic territory for what could have devolved into a domestic soap opera, but A Separation is much too perceptive for that. It's an insightful and honestly observed piece of work.

*In an interview, Farhadi told TimeOut London that censorship in Iran is a bit like British weather, "one day it’s sunny, the next day it’s raining. You just have to hope you walk out into the sunshine." The censors allowed Farhadi to film the script he submitted, a process no Iranian filmmaker can avoid unless he or she wants to work underground. I hope the sun of sanity shines on more of them.

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