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Cinema | 'A Separation': At Sea in the City of Ten Million Tears

by DAN GEIST

05 Oct 2011 20:35Comments
qswo1315123344.jpgFrom a realm where black-or-white is the rule, a film that dazzles with myriad shades of gray.

[ cinema ] After a recent New York Film Festival screening of A Separation, an audience member asked writer-director Asghar Farhadi how much license to improvise he'd granted his cast, on the assumption that improvisation must account for the performances' remarkable vitality and wealth of detail. A higher compliment can hardly be paid to an actor than to interpret a deliberately crafted, well-rehearsed performance as improvisational, especially in a film, such as Farhadi's, with a screenplay whose determination is so patent.

Performances of a quality warranting that sort of reaction may still be no more than auxiliary to a film's general rank of achievement; in the case of A Separation, they are fundamental to its success. The movie builds a wave of emotional nuances and moral quandaries that would be impossible to keep on top of without lead performances of variety, subtlety, and clarity.

"As a mother, I don't want her to grow up in these circumstances." That's how Simin (Leila Hatami) explains her desire to emigrate from Iran with her ten-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's own daughter), and her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi). Those "circumstances" are never spelled out -- one viewer posited that the problem was the "situation of women" in the Islamic Republic. Farhadi, who addressed the festival audience via a translator, flatly rejected that view:

I personally don't believe in the categorization between men and women. I believe it's a false categorization. And the reason is because when there are problems in a society, they are not divided between men's problems and women's problems. When there is a problem that affects women, it affects everyone around me -- it's my wife's problem, it's my mother's problem, it's my daughter's problem, so it's my problem.

The unstated problems that have motivated Simin's great effort to obtain visas for her family have yielded an intensely personal problem -- Nader doesn't want to go. Though he professes that he could give a "thousand reasons," just one is made plain. It's more than enough: Nader's aged father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), suffering from advanced dementia, lives with the family and Nader's sense of duty to him is inalterable. Nader simply disregards Simin's rhetorical query about whether his father even recognizes him as his son anymore -- he will never entertain that his devotion to keeping his father at home might ever smack so much as slightly of the absurd. Her request to be granted a divorce so she can leave at least with her daughter is denied until the couple can agree on Termeh's custody -- a judicial official, never seen, declares, "My finding is that your problem is a small problem."

As the deadline for using the visas looms, Simin vacates the family's comfortable middle-class home in downtown Tehran for her parents' place, offering Nader a preview of life without her. Before her departure, she helps arrange for the hire of someone to assume the daytime responsibilities for his father's care that she has evidently long borne. The deadline to leave Iran is in 40 days -- a metaphorical suggestion that, in Simin's heart, her father-in-law's condition has deteriorated to the point that he could as well be dead. (In Iranian Shia tradition, the primary mourning period after the death of a loved one is 40 days.) Any hint of callousness on her part is offset by the fact that of the few words the old man can still utter, the one he speaks most often is "Simin." Judging by the way he enunciates the name, the care she has provided has surely been tender; unquestionably, and more relevant to the events of the tale, it has been tireless and precise. A Separation commences on the day the unerring execution of that care ends.

Retained to look after the father while Nader is at work is Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a working-class woman whose husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), has been unemployed for many months and whose commute to the center city is two hours either way. The effort to substitute for Simin is doomed and her exit sets off a chain of tragic events, some large and more or less foreseeable, some small, less predictable, and more devastating for their commonness (and greater plausibility).

Farhadi -- while he acknowledges that the Islamic Republic is not "a truly democratic society" -- has said that, to avoid censorship, "I don't speak loudly in my films." In an interview last week with Steven Zeitchik of the Los Angeles Times, he articulated a position very different from that of other independent Iranian filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, whose pictures are routinely banned: "What's the point of making a movie if it can't be seen by the 70 million people in my home country?" His work, in fact, is not so politically muted as those statements imply. The certain consequence is that it is necessary to play several games to ensure that they can both be made and seen in Iran: There are ways of getting it done, he says, "that if I tell you about them, I can't use them anymore." Whatever means he has in mind (not speaking too loudly about his films is clearly one), the ends would seem to justify them. Defying the pessimistic expectations of many in the Iranian film industry, among whom the film has received near-universal acclaim, A Separation was named the country's official candidate for the Oscars.

The film openly and repeatedly engages with one issue of inarguable political import: class tensions in a society where urban poverty is endemic. Speaking to the festival audience, Farhadi described how the two families in the film -- Nader and Simin and Termeh; Razieh and Hodjat and their daughter, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) -- intentionally represent classes on either side of a socioeconomic divide. Speaking of those classes, he explained that in Iran, "There is a war, a hidden war, going on between the two."

The film's full Farsi title, Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, translates as Nader and Simin: A Separation. Reflecting the film's complexity within its physically constricted sphere, that is only one of many plausible titles it could have taken. Farhadi's observations suggest another: Townhouse and Tenement: The Hidden War. And another, with manifold meanings: Nader and Razieh: Accusations and Doubts -- the film's main weakness is that certain of those doubts make certain of those accusations incredible in retrospect. And still another, arguably at the story's dramatic core: Nader and Termeh: School for Lies. (If these hypotheticals imply that Nader is the film's lead character, that's so, despite comments of Farhadi's which indicate he thinks otherwise.)

But A Separation it is, and the picture does open and close on Nader and Simin. On the New York stage, Farhadi stated, "I identify myself more as a writer than as a filmmaker." Let none come between an artist and his self-identification, but Farhadi is a very skilled and imaginative director. Many scenes are shot through indoor windows and other glass partitions -- translucent, transparent, shattered -- at first to visually disorienting effect, evolving into resonance with the story's psychological perplexities. The symbolic import of the technique becomes inescapable only in the film's murmuringly catastrophic final shot.

Yet at the festival, Farhadi laid a claim to aesthetic effacement that dressed humility in the robes of the ideological, even the religious. He expressed a fervent allegiance to the traditions of what he identified as "Eastern art," in which "the creator of the work does not intrude between the work of art and the viewer." Invoking the fabled mosques of Isfahan, he restated his creed, "The shadow of the creator does not cast itself on the viewer. One tries to step aside." In the case of A Separation, Farhadi, in this regard, fails consummately.

A friend to whom I described the film asked if I sought artistically meaningful "trends" in today's independent Iranian cinema. I replied that while I found several such trends -- widely productive ones -- apparent in the 1990s and early 2000s, I believed that they were now far more difficult to sustain given the intensity of censorship and personal pressure on the country's filmmakers, exemplified by the lengthy prison sentences and professional bans handed down to Panahi and fellow director Mohammad Rasoulof late last year. A combination of brilliance and daring, or cunning, none of the three readily deliverable by trend, is now a virtual prerequisite for an Iranian filmmaker to make any work of substance.

After further thought: amid a common culture, contemporaneous artists of brilliance, though impelled by their own strokes, still move among the same tides. A follower of Iranian cinema may note that, just as in Rasoulof's 2009 masterpiece The White Meadows, in however different ways, the central action of A Separation circulates around serving a gravely enfeebled old man. The absurdity of the service draws more emphasis in the earlier film; its compassion more in the latter -- but the ways in which these currents cross are crucial to both, as is the element that floods through each, which is sacrifice.

Asked in New York about his original inspiration for A Separation, Farhadi replied, "When I started making the story, I can't point my finger to exactly how it first got constructed in my head." He proceeded to describe his manifest circumstances at the time -- he was in Berlin, working on another film -- but then returned to the mental question and revealed the initial impulse for a story that he said demanded to be made in his homeland: "The first image that came to my mind was an old man with Alzheimer's disease." Where Rasoulof's film is fiercely allegorical, Farhadi's appears resolutely naturalistic, but it is not hard to see them being swept by the same titanic undertow.

A Separation, distributed in the United States by Sony Pictures Classics, opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 30.

Dan Geist is a critic and senior editor at Tehran Bureau.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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