December 29, 2011 at 1:28 pm #47938
Movie Review | ‘A Separation’
A House Divided by Exasperation
By A. O. SCOTT
“A Separation,” a tightly structured, emotionally astute new film from Iran,
begins with a couple, at odds and in distress, arguing in front of a judge.
Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave the country with her daughter, Termeh
(Sarina Farhadi), and Simin’s husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), insists on staying
at home in Tehran to care for his frail and elderly father, who suffers from
dementia and needs constant attention. Quite possibly there is more at issue
than practical domestic arrangements — there are hints of suppressed anger in
Nader’s demeanor, of long-simmering exasperation in Simin’s — but an Iranian
courtroom may not be the best place to discuss intimate marital matters.
Nor, given that country’s strict censorship codes, is an Iranian film. But
“A Separation,” written and directed by Asghar Farhadi (and Iran’s official Oscar submission), does not feel especially
constrained. It is a rigorously honest movie about the difficulties of being
honest, a film that tries to be truthful about the slipperiness of truth. It
also sketches a portrait — perhaps an unnervingly familiar picture for American
audiences — of a society divided by sex, generation, religion and class.
The partial split between Nader and Simin is only one of the schisms revealed
in the course of a story that quietly and shrewdly combines elements of family
melodrama and legal thriller. Because Nader refuses to agree to a divorce or to
give the legally required permission for his daughter to travel abroad, he and
Simin find themselves at an impasse. She goes to live with her parents, and he
hires a young woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to help look after his father.
Razieh, who arrives with her young daughter, has an anxious, plaintive
manner, and her apparent unreliability brings minor irritation and then outright
chaos into Nader’s life. Before long — and as a result of events I will leave
for you to discover — Nader is back in court, embroiled in long arguments with
Razieh and her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), an unemployed shoemaker laden
with debt and seething with resentment, humiliation and angry piety.
The conflict between the two families, which often turns on forensic details
and uncertain recollections, is inflamed by social tension. In Hodjat’s eyes
Nader and Simin are part of a corrupt and entitled elite, arrogant and
irreligious and full of contempt for an ordinary working man like him. And their
attempts to be reasonable, compassionate and polite betray an unmistakable
condescension, which Mr. Farhadi tacitly endorses by making Hodjat such a brute.
There are moments when the humanism of “A Separation” feels a bit schematic,
as if the characters were pulled from a box of available types rather than
painted in the shades of life. But there are also scenes that draw power from
the subtlety of the performances, in particular the quiet, watchful portrayal by
Ms. Farhadi (the director’s daughter) of a girl who is at once central and
peripheral to the drama unfolding around her. Termeh, shy and studious, is
desperate to please her parents and terrified that her family will collapse. Her
parents, and the audience, continually overlook the intensity of her feelings,
which nonetheless pervade the film, along with her unspoken hope that everything
will work out in the end.
The outcome is less important to Mr. Farhadi than what leads up to it, and
the film is remarkably deft in capturing the petty, cumulative frustrations of
modern city life. In addition to their weekly quota of quarrels and brooding
silences, Simin and Nader must contend with work (she is a doctor, he has a job
in a bank), their daughter’s schooling, Tehran traffic (a touchstone of recent
Iranian cinema) and an officious and sometimes chaotic government
bureaucracy. Daily life is a cycle of waiting, nagging, negotiating and looking
for a place to park, much of it carried out with frayed and weary decorum. Even
when everything seems to be falling apart, people try to mind their manners.
Because self-control seems to be, in this setting, both a deeply ingrained
habit and a public virtue, eruptions of feeling — some of which come close to
physical violence — arrive with special force in “A Separation.” And they leave
a knot of ethical and philosophical questions that may make the walk home from
the theater as argumentative as the film itself. Most of the characters’
behavior is viewed with sympathy and skepticism, and the frequent bouts of legal
wrangling invite endless interpretation of every aspect of the story. Somehow it
is all perfectly clear, and yet at the same time tantalizingly and
heartbreakingly mysterious.February 16, 2012 at 8:39 am #47940
… the film’s approach is more personal than political, considering human nature rather than a cultural system. It’s not a polemical film with Something To Say About The Way Things Are. That these characters reside in Iran seems more a matter of geography than of central thematic intent … The rest of my reviewMarch 4, 2012 at 10:19 am #47941
This finally made it to my area this weekend. Certainly not the easiest film to watch for some of the unsettling subject matter and cultural differences, but it was riveting all the same. It’s hard not to be drawn into a story line this one with routinely compelling performances given by the strong ensemble. It’s worth getting as big an audience as it can, and the near-capacity crowd that I saw it with is promising at least.
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