Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Separation

What's between us? Asghar Farhadi contemplates the various boundaries that divide us in his intricately composed, quietly devastating, and thoroughly engrossing familial drama A SEPARATION. It's one of the best films of the year.

Nader and Simin are a secular, upper-middle class couple living with their daughter Termeh in Tehran. Simin wants to leave Iran to give Termeh a better life. Nader can't leave because he has his sick, elderly father to take care of. In an instantly gripping first post-credits shot, we find them both seated before us, as two supplicants, with Simin asking a judge for a divorce from Nader. The divergent directional pull between them has become too much; if Nader won't leave Iran, then Simin will take Termeh and leave without him. The judge denies Simin's request, claiming her dispute is trivial and doesn't warrant such a grave step as divorce. After this, the two characters are forced to remain together legally, but become physically separated when Simin decides to move out. From here, the complications set in.

I won't reveal anymore of the plot because I wouldn't want to cheat you out of the experience of being caught in its tidy little web and feeling its supersonic rhythms for the first time. All I will say is that you get sucked in immediately. Every sentence has meaning; every gesture ripples and resounds.

Farhadi complicates matters further and further as we go along. The first half of the film sets up all the pieces for us and the remainder of the film watches them all collide together creating a rich befuddlement of truth that recalls Hitchcock and Kurosawa. Farhadi's initial focus on simple images and commonplace interactions pays off handsomely in the end as we see all of the little details emerge and unravel like a great mystery. Except the revelations have been there all along, so the film is more in line with the anti-mystery of CACHÉ than the full-blown question mark of SHUTTER ISLAND. Still, don't let the Hanake comparison mislead you: this is a character driven drama first and foremost, not a meditation on the politics of looking. Our characters speak fast, speak often, and are rarely if ever outside of the frame. This is an entirely accessible film, but one that requires and rewards close attention (and fast reading for us English speakers). Farhadi's use of ellipses convolutes the truth enough that we start to question what we have seen and what we know, but we are always grounded in the reality of the situation. The film never lies to us; only the characters do.

I found the film's complications compelling. You are never entirely on one side of the debate nor do you want any of the characters to suffer or be punished. One of Farhadi's greatest achievements with the film is how well he complicates the issue with copious factors and how well he complicates his characters, making none of their decisions black-and-white but always true to the complexity of their humanity. John (and hell, hopefully all of you) would appreciate how well the film grounds its characters within the moral, religious, economical, and social codes that define much of human behavior. Certainly, as I started to write above, the characters are demarcated by various lines of identity and culture, lines that serve both as distinct character signifiers and bulwarks for dramatical separation. As the film constantly reminds us by separating its characters through glass barriers, they are so close yet so far away. And the divisions between them are transparent yet fully solidified.

Many reviews have touched on this being a political statement against the status quo in Iran. A SEPARATION's primary imbroglio could very well be a parable for the divisiveness and truculence of Iranian society. Simin tells Nader that his involvement in the issue is creating exactly the sort of turbulent environment they don’t want for Termeh. I don't know enough about Iranian society outside of the films I've seen from there and the stereotypical depictions you get from the media to comment on this with much insight or veracity. All I can say is that we need more films like this to come out of places like Iran and for as many Westerners to see them as possible. The humanistic characterizations of this film are the best way to counteract the bellicose and oppressive depiction you receive of this country from the media. Watching it, I couldn't help but feel incredibly frightened and sad to recall recent politicians calling for Iran to be our latest bombing target. Because I cared about these characters so much I couldn't help but feel worried about the faceless threat of war. I didn't want anyone to be hurt in the movie, and I don't want anyone to be hurt in real life. This should be required viewing for anyone who thinks war with this country is a serious option.

Perhaps, it's mostly the children I'm thinking of when I say all of this (where's Helen Lovejoy when you need her–won't someone please think of the children!!). The children in this film are fantastic and heartbreaking. Every actor in this is absolutely terrific (especially the fellow who plays Nader), but the two kids here deserve special mention for being such substantial forces on all of the proceedings. They are like quiet hands of judgment held sway over everything. As the film moves forward and the adults are continuously dividing, they remain encircled together, playing as children often can without boundaries. Their relationship is one of the only uplifting things about the film and their presence together its major indictment. As the profound reciprocal look they share signifies, and their constant panoptic gaze over the situation assuredly reminds–the children are watching us.

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