Review: A Separation

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For the last couple of years I’ve seen ironically titled films on Valentine’s Day. Last year was Kiss Me Deadly, this year, A Separation, an Iranian film by Asghar Farhadi that is nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay.

Given the title, and what little I knew about the film going in, I thought it was about the dissolution of a marriage, but it’s much, much more than that. The plot, which grows more intricate and intriguing as the film goes on, starts with a couple’s separation, but it’s not the Iranian Scenes From a Marriage. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Maadi) are before a judge, who is deciding whether they have grounds for divorce. The only disagreement is that Hatami wants to emigrate, due to an unspoken “situation” (presumably the political climate, but given the nation’s draconian censorship laws, we fill this in ourselves). Nader wants to stay to care of his father, who has Alzheimer’s.

The judge refuses their petition, but Hatami leaves to stay with her parents. This means Nader must hire a caregiver for his father. He hires a woman from well outside the city, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout Muslim who takes the job to help her family’s economic situation. Her husband, a hot-tempered fellow (Shahab Hosseini), who is out of work. However, she has taken the job without gaining his permission, which is against custom.

This sets off a series of events that will lead to a boiling cauldron of lies, slippery morals, and faith. I do not want to reveal anything more than that, as I had no idea what was going to happen and this is the best way to see the movie. Suffice it to say that we can’t be sure who is telling the truth and what is being concealed, even from those we can presume to be honest.

Because this film is from a deeply religious country, the laws of religion are noted, but if this were to take place in any other country it would still be fascinating, for different reasons. At the core is a basic human trait–the urge to lie to save one’s skin, or the skin of a family member. Loyalty is tested repeatedly throughout the film, with different results. It’s easy to put yourself in each character’s skin and think if you would do any different.

But since this film is from Iran, a country we might be at war with any day now, it provides an interesting glimpse into that culture. It is somewhat westernized, at least for the upper-middle-class Simin and Nader. But the traditions of patriarchy and the Muslim medieval treatment of women is still in force. The fact that Bayat wears a chador will come into play. I was also interested to see the Iranian justice system at work–it looks like the American DMV, with a judge sitting at a simple table in a small room.

The performances by the four principles are all first rate, as is a juvenile performance by Farhadi’s daughter, Sarina, as a girl torn between her warring parents, which will lead to the film’s final, gripping, scene. I found the most interesting performance to be by Bayat, as the devout woman who primary motive at any one time shifts between loyalty to God and to her husband.

A Separation starts slowly, but builds to climax that is as powerful as anything I’ve seen all year. I’m not sure if it will win the Oscar (there is a Holocaust film in the mix), but I doubt any of the four competitors could be any better.

My grade for A Separation: A

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

5 responses »

  1. Good review. I feel the same way about the film, and I think it’s probably #1 on the year for me right now.

    One of the more interesting things about it is the way that it plays with audience sympathies and even the alliances between the characters within the film. We’re constantly seeing characters in different ways as more is revealed of their character, and like you say, it’s easy to empathize with each of them at different times. But this dynamic is also going on within the story, as the characters themselves are seeing different shades of each other and their own opinions are constantly being challenged and revised.

    Plus, it’s just an amazing piece of filmmaking. It’s a shame that foreign films are so often ghettoized by the Academy into their own category. To the Academy’s credit, they also nominated this film for a well-deserved Original Screenplay nomination, but it’s so clearly deserving of Director and Editing nominations as well.

  2. My two initial reponses to this?
    1. Some of the best acting I’ve ever seen.
    2. One of the most satisfying endings ever.

    Will write more tomorrow. Too tired right now.

  3. This movie’s greatness is undeniable. In tone, in construction, in mood, in execution. This movie stands along with the best of Fatih Akin. There is nothing I can say that others haven’t touched upon.
    HOWEVER…I did have a small issue with the film. It isn’t an issue that the final shot, a shot that not only comments on a relationship but comments on a country and the people and their religion and beliefs and relationships, it isn’t an issue that overshadows that ending, but it is an issue for me.
    The writing. Some of the moments in this film made me feel manipulated. Some dramatic moments are taken to the logical point where we expect something to happen and then: BAM, we are taken out of the moment and transported to the next with nothing between.
    At times, we are led by what the writer wanted to show us, not what would organically come from the moment.
    ********************SPOILERS*****************************
    1.The father on the street and then abruptly watching him play football. If we’re in that moment with those characters, why wouldn’t we know what happened before we learn it in the end? It felt like a ‘Deus Ex Machina’. (But doesn’t take away its power at all).
    2. The money issue. The wife denies and then the daughter tells her the mother didn’t take the money. Okay, let us decide what happened but then the father says ‘I KNOW’. At that moment, I felt manipulated, pushed towards the child, the culpability of whom (as much as a child can be culpable) is now in question. Personally, I didn’t like that.

    Those are just the two I remember off the top of my head. Issues of which in no way diminish what is a REMARKABLY ACTED,REMARKABLY SHOT, brilliantly edited masterpiece. And I am thankful you and Brian pushed me towards this over The Artist.

  4. But that *ENDING*.
    That shot….that summation….ending it where it naturally ends. The power of that last shot is stunning.

  5. Glad you liked it, filmman. I agree with your spoiler objection #1 – it was the closest the movie came to cheating with its narrative. If the audience knew what happened there instead of having it deliberately withheld by the filmmakers, the rest of the movie plays out quite differently tone-wise.

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