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Cinema | 2 Saffron Candies and the Big Kallak: Rethinking 'A Separation'


29 Dec 2011 23:44Comments
separatio1.jpg[ critique ] "A Separation," director Asghar Farhadi's fifth feature, debuted in Iran in March to great critical acclaim and commercial success. It was hailed almost universally within the Iranian film industry, though many in the field were concerned that it would not be named the country's official candidate for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film because competing movies were presumed to enjoy greater political pull. As it turned out, the film was in fact selected for Oscar consideration.

At the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, "A Separation" won the Golden Bear for best film and two Silver Bears -- the top acting prizes -- for the male and female performers in its ensemble. It has won Best Foreign Language Film awards from multiple critics' organizations, including the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. In three of the most comprehensive critics' polls of 2011 cinema, it ranked highly: second in the "Sight & Sound" ballot; fourth in the "Film Comment" survey; and second again in the "Village Voice" vote. In mid-December, it received a Golden Globe nomination, the first ever for an Iranian film. The Oscar nominations will be announced on January 24; if "A Separation" is one of the five nominees, it will be only the second Iranian film so recognized (the sole precedent is Majid Majidi's "Children of Heaven" [1997]). If it succeeds in winning the Oscar -- the award ceremony takes place on February 26 -- it will be the first film from Iran ever to be so honored.

In early October, "A Separation" had its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival. In his review, Tehran Bureau senior editor and arts critic Dan Geist praised its "performances' remarkable vitality and wealth of detail," which carry the viewer along its "wave of emotional nuances and moral quandaries." Examining how the film deals with class tensions and the metaphorical significance of the lead character's enfeebled father, he also observed that Farhadi must "play several games to ensure that [his work] can both be made and seen in Iran." The picture goes into U.S. commercial release on Friday, opening in New York and Los Angeles. Here is another look at it by one of Tehran Bureau's regular contributors. -- The Editors


I read the review by Dan Geist here of Asghar Farhadi's A Separation. It is a fine review in all aspects but one -- it does not address the contradiction that the movie produces between itself and its story. By itself, I mean its own conception, production, and marketing. I will describe and examine that contradiction, which may actually be a clever ploy, after I discuss a few of the things that brought me to my view.

I write this as if speaking to a friend who has already seen the film; given the coverage it has received, both here and elsewhere, I will not go into detail about its plot. If you have not yet seen it, good, this piece may help you be on guard when you get the chance. If you have, and if like most viewers you have been beguiled, this may help you shake off the trance it induces. The movie is that powerful -- at least on the surface, like shock and awe. But then the reality sinks in. I hope I can help with the latter stage.

The first thing that popped into my mind after watching A Separation twice in 24 hours was Crowned Cannibals, the book by Reza Baraheni about the era before the Revolution. I recalled it not so much for its description of the Shah's atrocities, but the proposition that unlike in Greek mythology where children almost unfailingly destroy their parents, in Iranian narratives it is the parents who devour their children, from Rostam killing his son Sohrab, albeit unknowingly, to Shirin falling victim to her elders' machinations.

It seems like Farhadi is trapped by the same lame proposition, or that it has guided him at least subconsciously, which I suspect has helped his film resonate positively with Western audiences. Self-deprecation is the first rule of Third World cinema if it wants success with mass audiences -- yes, "those immoral patriarchal societies deserve it all."

The truth is that this having to sacrifice left and right is the human condition. Thousands of parents of the inheritors of the Greek worldview -- that is, Westerners by heritage -- continue, after being stricken by Alzheimer's, to be cared for by their loving children, whose lives are thereby daily turned upside down. Many have sacrificed as much as Nader, giving up their lives and often their life savings. Must we construe all such behavior as parents cannibalizing their children's lives? No. It is nature that endlessly destroys human beings, giving us these bundles of molecules worth $2.36 at the close of the commodities market at the Chicago Board of Trade today, giving us as well these emotional ties to other bundles of molecules that also have somehow received consciousness and thus suffer for who knows what reason, except as another way to mark time. The Greeks and the Iranians and everyone else wants to survive. Sometimes children sacrifice, sometimes parents. No cannibalism, but love.

So the projection of the dementia-crippled father destroying Nader's life unknowingly, like Rostam, onto the respective daughters of Nader and Simin and of Razieh and Hodjat is just as empty as the original proposition. Nader and Simin are portrayed as thinking in a fundamentally Western way, in the lineage of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believing that we are born as tabula rasa, whom life then sets out to corrupt. Religions thrive on similar charades that are emotionally easy to swallow, especially when presented amid the artfully designed stage set of mosque, temple, or church. Here many audiences seem to have swallowed the screen version of that line without question. But maybe when confronted with this fantastic subliminal smoke-and-mirror show, that is irresistible. Frankly, I was trapped for the first third or so of the movie, until I realized I was almost letting the hook set. I had to watch it a second time to wash off the grime I felt accumulating on my own beliefs.

First, as children we are as smart as adults. We are born with survival instincts. I have a lot of experience with children through my wife's care center and know how children as young as two lie and otherwise deceive to get attention, from false crying to framing their fellows for things they have done themselves. We understand perfectly well as children that there are circumstances in which it is necessary to distort the truth to make it to the next day. None of us can claim that we have not done so at some point. I find it odd then that we tend to accept the Platonic candy that sweetly says otherwise onscreen.

In fact, we see this lack of innocence perfectly in the exchange of glances between Nader and Termeh, his daughter, when it become clear that Razieh, the houseworker, may have not been telling the truth after all, justifying Nader's lies in defensive reaction. It suggests that Termeh has suddenly turned into an 11-year-old adult. No, she knew that buying time is imperative to uncover the truth, more so than putting yourself in prison for sake of some shaky principle, eliminating any chance of finding the truth on your own. Perhaps the suggestion is that God will expose the truth. And that suggestion is probably how Farhadi got the permit to make this movie aboveground. Nonetheless, in this exchange, despite the fabulous performances and flawless editing, Termeh's expression still conveys "Ya, I knew it all along," and not "Oh Dad, I see that you were telling the truth."

Earlier, there is the court scene in which, without being coached to testify that her father was unaware of Razieh's pregnancy when he accosted her, Termeh utters a white lie: "I told him that Razieh was pregnant" -- which doesn't contravene the fact that he already was aware. Termeh plays just as cleverly with the truth as her father. She, like he, wants to survive. The doubt about Razieh's version of the truth, despite her deeply religious righteousness, is pervasive. Termeh risks a guilty conscience for another day of survival. No need to devour your father for a poor reason. No one is destroying the children or corrupting them. No need to feel guilty as adults. Children are not tabula rasa.

Children's expedient tricks are occasions for boasting by all Iranian parents, 100 percent, full stop. They love it when their kids trick, or pull a kallak, on their siblings, friends, relatives, and even teachers. Kallak is different from cheating. It's about taking advantage of circumstances to check the opponent's own kallak, or to find out if they have any kallak in the works. Just as we don't call chess ploys cheating, but merely gambits, kallak is rather innocent. So parents hug and love their kids for it -- after some fake, wink-wink admonishments -- and they give the little trickster a saffron candy, or I suppose some Smarties or M&Ms these days. A kid who can't kallak is considered a fool, even retarded.

Simin's departure is also a kallak, or as she has told Termeh, "allakie," a ploy, and Nader is fully aware of it. By pretending to leave Nader, Simin is trying to extract some concessions to realize her vision of a better marriage. Thus Termeh is already in on the games of survival and their attendant need for kallak. When Simin finds out that Nader knows of her ploy, she asks Termeh if she has told her father, again suggesting that the child is a pawn who is being corrupted by both sides. But a child in such a circumstance does whatever is needed to survive: hold the marriage together if that is better for her, or if it is a poisonous union, let it fall apart and take her chances with one parent or the other.

Thus Termeh's desperate and thorny moments, beautifully acted, of her worries over her father's possible lying are themselves dishonest vignettes, especially given the context of the movie and its premise. Is Farhadi saying that fooling the audience is just as necessary as Nader's twisting of the truth for his own and his daughter's survival? These contradictions make the movie interesting, not the story it encompasses. Farhadi seems to believe that he, no less than his characters, is entitled to twist the truth. And so he builds a Russian nesting doll of kallaks.

Of course, the acting, lighting, rapid cuts, and background sonic landscape of the city are so perfectly executed that the film can pull the wool over anyone's eyes. It can kallak even the canniest audiences into an idealistic emotional state that Mother Teresa or the most ardent passion play orator would envy.

At the same time, there is one person in all of this who can't handle herself. She jumbles everything up due to her deep religious convictions, which are nothing but a pack of strange superstitions. She swears to God and the saints and the Holy Qur'an. She substitutes her superstitions for rationality and logic. So it is telling that there is no swearing on the book in the courtroom. Swearing on the Qur'an is a device used only privately to intimidate the opposition. And even that intimidation is not religious but social. If you swear to and lie on that few hundred pages of fantastic tales, you are not honest, socially. That is the power of this storytelling tool and Farhadi has used it without falling prey to the censors. Although it might be expected that most viewers would see through this, it appears that they accept whichever character seems to be religiously disposed as the moral one. Farhadi probably basks in this masterful kallak.

In other words, people look past that folk American notion of swearing on the holy book everywhere but in the movies. Even though no such ritual exists in European courts, still people there seem to trust a hand on a stack of ink-covered cellulose between two pieces of cardboard when presented on film. Of course, other than Razieh, no one seems to believe it within the movie either. They all pretend to piety, like the arbiters gathered to witness Nader's blood-money payment who cede to his demand that Razieh swear to his culpability on the book. It turns out that Nader, who knows how superstitious Razieh is, has employed this gambit as a means of intimidation. We then discover that some of the arbiters also happen to be usurers.

In yet another scene, Nader swears on the book, as Hodjat, Razieh's destitute husband, looks at him in disbelief, knowing that he is not being fully truthful -- just as anyone might see another person's eyes twitch slightly or their voice falter for a moment amid telling a lie, be it in Tehran, Milan, or Kansas City. Law enforcement has access to mechanical devices to detect such evasions, but human eyes and ears are still much better, although their results are not admissible in courts of law. We all are equipped to notice such things in most circumstances, and the actors in this movie are particularly adept at enacting the tics, hesitations, and other mannerisms of the liar. Certainly the editing enhances their visually rich performances. I wonder how many takes must have been shot of each scene to pull it off.

Societies could not survive without moral schemata, but is it true that they can be triggered only by religion? I believe not. Morality is an evolutionary constraint developed to protect us from destroying our own societies. Aside from the false suggestion that morality comes from religion, the survival instinct is sadly demeaned in the movie, although it is the most wonderful trait with which humans have been endowed by evolution. People who have no religious beliefs don't tell lies because deep down they sense it is wrong. It is really because it is not helpful to the survival of our societies in the long run -- the course of our own lives and the foreseeable generations to come. This has been demonstrated in the many studies that show how criminals subconsciously leave clues that will eventually bring a stop to their "immoral" acts. Religion simply gives this evolutionary mechanism an otherworldly gloss off of whose shine priests, mullahs, and rabbis can make a good living, and which audiences will pay to watch in passion plays like this one.

Moral dilemmas and survival are at the heart of Farhadi's previous film, About Elly (2009), far more existential and honest, but no box-office hit. Its core themes have now been repackaged in a different story for this year's sleek commercial fare. Maybe it is Farhadi's kallak, based on a belief that artistic survival demands commercial success.

Although I felt I had almost fallen for a kallak, I still imagine that, for students of cinema, this movie must stand out as a technical tour de force. But unsurpassable technique here holds a vacuous story together, as if beautiful coasts define the ocean and not the other way around.

The greats of Iranian cinema had something to say and didn't need such technical perfection. But A Separation is so well acted, shot, and assembled that it is capable of concealing the most inane and unrealistic story we have seen from Iran. In fact, it is not an Iranian story at all. It is a dreamland children's tale with enough magic and fairytale notions to have warmed Walt Disney's heart. A cartoon version would sell tons of Cheerios on a Saturday morning.

Certainly, on a different level one can consider this movie a compilation of 169,728 beautiful pictures presented with a superb audio accompaniment at 24 frames per second. In all likelihood, that will suffice to make most Western audiences regard it as great. The shame is that its technical mastery is kallaking them into letting the storyline hook at its very shallow depth.

By comparison, before the Revolution, Abbas Kiarostami produced a series of movies ostensibly for the education of Iran's youth. In these works, he shows a myriad of social interactions that demonstrate the sophistication of children as young as four or five. They understand cheating, lying, tricking, and above all, trust, especially in their own instincts. To children, awareness is as important as being honest, but if need be they can lie to survive.

Many pertinent examples from Kiarostami's oeuvre might be cited, but the most familiar is a film he made after the Revolution, Where Is the Friend's House? (1987). The protagonist, an eight-year-old boy, inadvertently takes the workbook of a friend who is on probation for tardiness and not finishing his assignments. He attempts to return the workbook so his friend can complete his crucial assignment for the next day. Failing to find him despite many hours of searching through neighboring town and villages, he decides to save his friend's skin by completing his assignment for him, in effect cheating. No one blinks an eye and he is deemed a hero. In A Separation, such behavior would be tantamount to capital sin. It is the glitter of the movie's technical brilliance that hoodwinks us into accepting such a premise. It does exactly what its storyline suggests is wrong -- it pulls a kallak.

Some consider A Separation subliminal propaganda for the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is not clear that this is the case, at least intentionally. If it were, much credit would have to be paid to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for becoming suddenly sharp after decades as a crude and jagged sword. I also discount this notion as Nader's father, unknowingly and unwittingly destroying his son's life, can readily be taken to stand for the fatherland. That obvious metaphor clearly escaped the ministry's stiletto-wielding censors. There is also the blatant use of names as signifiers of the characters' characters.* Weighing finally against this idea is that the character defined as most religious is revealed as fundamentally flawed and caught in her own web of superstitions.

Regardless of motives, Farhadi has pulled off a neat trick, for which his loved ones can now hug him and give him a saffron candy -- though they shouldn't forget the ritual admonishment, perhaps a pantomime slap on the hand. To kallak so many audiences, really he deserves two saffron candies. Could an Oscar be any tastier?

* Here are the meanings of the names of A Separation's main characters (Nader's father is unnamed):

Nader, the father -- rare, unique, hard to find (Arabic, a secular name)

Simin, his wife -- one who shines like silver, porcelain-skinned (Persian, a secular name)

Termeh, their daughter - a sophisticated, supple woven cloth with gold strands and a field of abstract flowers and paisleys (Persian, an uncommon secular name)

Razieh, the domestic -- accepting of one's condition (Arabic, a religious name)

Hodjat, her husband -- authority: one of the dozen traits of each of the dozen Shia Imams (Arabic, a religious name)

Somayeh, their daughter -- mother of a close attendant of the Prophet Muhammad (Arabic, a religious name)


Dan Geist responds:

I've long been fascinated by the way one's perceptions of a film change over time, especially in light of how cinema among the narrative arts pivots so preeminentily around what Robert Warshow called the "immediate experience." An individual movie review often reads as if it is capturing the response of a magically well-endowed instant, but like any other literary exercise it translates inescapably temporal processes. The foregoing comment reminds us that our evaluation of a film can alter radically even in the course of watching it. (As Tehran Bureau senior editor, it was my pleasure to edit this piece, notwithstanding its identification of my analytical divot.) In the critic's workaday life, significant time can elapse between screening room and composition desk, and then as one writes, time continues to march and so too reflection, if more fitfully.

As the lights came up on A Separation, I was as beguiled as those around me appeared to be. The dubious nature of some of Farhadi's postscreening comments had no conscious effect on my admiration for his work. As I wrote, the way certain sophisticated elisions in the screenplay served to conceal the implausibility of certain of the characters' choices began to niggle at me, but to the practical yield of just one sentence (plus a brief parenthetical) explicitly on point. Then, at the very end of my labors, I felt compelled to make a crucial change. For much of my draftwork, I had bracketed Farhadi with Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi as filmmakers "of brilliance and daring." There came a turn within me and I knew it was wrong to place Farhadi so fully in their company; I rewrote the pertinent passage to suggest that he was something rather else, a filmmaker of brilliance and "cunning." To put it another way, a kallak.

Reading and musing on our commentator's piece -- now there's a temporal process -- has helped me to understand in just what fashion. The script of A Separation, the most widely heralded aspect of Farhadi's work, increasingly strikes me as a greater achievement in unadmitted legerdemain than in multivalent drama. I have also had the opportunity and time to reflect on a friend's report of a question-and-answer session with the director after the movie's Paris premiere. My Iranian-born friend questioned its veracity very much along the lines expressed by the commentator above: Do Iranians really get so worked up about lying? she wondered. Farhadi, parrying the point, asked if she'd set foot in Iran since the Revolution. "Are you saying Iranians have become more honest since the Revolution?" she asked. This riposte he did not stoop to counter. But if he wasn't saying that, then what exactly was he saying by bringing the vagaries of individual biography into play? The answer is clear. He was trying to bury the original question -- and the questioner -- in a pile of kallak.

In no way, however, do I mean to suggest that Farhadi or A Separation are at all undeserving of Oscar recognition. Indeed, they could hardly have done more to merit it. Since not long after 1910, when D. W. Griffith traversed the corn-gold sea of middle America to discover paradise on the Pacific rim, the name of the sleepy village he claimed for the budding U.S. film industry has been one of our most resplendent synonyms for kallak on the grand scale: that's "Hollywood."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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