Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Asghar Farhadi's A SEPARATION: a shoo-in for the Best Foreign-Language Film shortlist

A SEPARATION, Iran's entry into this year's Best Foreign-Language Film sweepstakes, is, TrustMovies believes, almost certain to make the shortlist, as well as being among the final five films nominated, and -- he suspects, from what he's seen so far of the other entries -- very probably the winning film itself. It is that riveting a multi-generation family drama, utterly accessible to western sensibilities, and a film that will keep you on your toes right up until the last suspenseful moment. It is so good, in fact, that TM dearly wishes it were better. We'll get to why at the end of this post, where we will try our best to avoid spoilers.

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi (shown at right, this is his fifth full-length movie as writer/director), the film appears at first to be about the dissolution of a marriage and family -- the separation of the title -- but soon evolves into much more. The mother, played well by Leila Hatami, shown below, wants the family (she, her husband and her daughter -- all clearly bright and well-educated) to move to the U.S.A. where she believes they will have a better life. (Perhaps she's unaware of our increasingly poor 99%, or maybe the family is richer than they seem.)

Her husband Nader (a terrific acting job, the movie's best, from Peyman Maadi, shown below, left) can't/won't leave his Alzheimers-ailing father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, below, right, in his film debut), behind in Iran.

The couple's daughter -- a nice job of presenting teenage angst, in a quiet, eastern style over-layed with a religion biased against women, by Sarina Farhadi (below, and the director's own daughter) -- is angry, at first toward mom, and then later, for reasons that slowly become apparent due to the twists taken by the plot, toward her dad.

The catalyst for much of what happens is another mother/father/
daughter family that mirrors the first in interesting ways: They seem super-religious, as opposed to our three who are more secular, not particularly intelligent nor well-spoken -- and not nearly so well off.

The mother (Sareh Bayat, above, left, giving the strongest woman's performance in the film), her daughter in tow, takes a caretaker job with the first family, screwing things up in just about every way possible. When her mentally unbalanced, religious-nut husband (funny how these two qualities work together so well in this society) -- a riveting performance from Shahab Hosseini, below -- enters the picture, all hell threatens to break loose.

Questions of who knew what and when did they know it (doesn't that put you in mind of Watergate?) loom large as the film progresses, and it is when the pieces of the puzzle finally come together that my quibbles surface.

Our discovering the be-all-end-all event so late in the game is not a little annoying, particularly since we were literally right there, moments before that event happened. That the filmmaker chose to deprive us of this knowledge by cutting away at the singular moment smacks of manipulation rather than of organic storytelling. (This happens again right at the end of the film, when knowledge we might know and profit from is deliberately withheld from us.)

Yes, these characters -- all of them -- are flawed, and it is good that the filmmaker makes certain we understand this. But the loose ends here are awfully long and untidy (Is there a law in Iran that a doctor cannot testify as to the state of her patient at a certain day and time?  Was that missing money stolen, misplaced or what? And by whom?) Truth and justice may be murky, all right, but here it is simply made more murky by the filmmaker's choices.

All this does not sink A Separation, which is among the most western movies made by an easterner that I have seen (only Certified Copy beats it in terms of western sensibility). The performances are splendid, the dialog on target, the sense of place and space (below) captured beautifully. And the many moral questions the movie raises are well worth exploring. I recommend the film wholeheartedly -- despite these, yes, minor flaws -- because it is so full of intelligence, humanity and spirit. Word-of-mouth, I believe, is going to be major on this film, so don't be surprised if you can't get in to see it on your initial attempt or two.

A Separation (from Sony Pictures Classics, 123 minutes) opens this Friday, December 30, in New York (at Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema) and in West Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal. A nationwiderollout begins the following week and will continue over the coming weeks and months. Click here to see the playdates, cities and theaters so far scheduled.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post.

In answer to your comment regarding the missing money, it was taken at the beginning of the film by Simin to pay the piano movers.

The doctor was never called in for testimony because Razieh concealed the fact that she had been to the doctor and then later, Nader concealed the fact that he had overheard her conversation with the his daughter's tutor from the kitchen. After that, the tutor withdrew her testimony and could no longer be questioned regarding the doctor.

The film's western feel as you call could not be further from the truth. In terms of content, the film represents the problematics of life in modern-day Iran. However, they have been relayed in such a manner that they have taken on a universal guise. Perhaps foreign audiences' ability to connect with this movie is why you think it has a western feel.

In terms of film making style, cinema in Iran is a 100-plus-year-old art and art is universal.
The only factor in determining the film's geographical locality, is where it was made and not its content nor its style.

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks so much, Anon, for your thoughtful and helpful comments. I evidently missed the fact that Simin had taken the piano money (at the time she takes it, I guess I didn't realize that that would be the money in question). And yes, I guess only Nader, Razieh and the tutor are privy to the doctor thing; I didn't realize that, in Iran, if you withdraw your testimony, it is evidently as though it never happened.

However, re the Western "feel" -- or the universality, as you call it -- perhaps we are talking about the same thing. I don't use the term universality because I don't think all this would be considered universal, say, in the third world. You need a certain standard of living for what happens in A Separation to take place. Hence my use of western. However, you're undoubtedly right about the "problematics of life in modern-day Iran": the courts, the place of women and the religion that hovers over all.

Regarding filmmaking style and cinema in Iran, however, I disagree with you. I don't believe that "the only factor in determining the film's geographical locality is where it was made." This might be true, for reasons of convention, in terms of how awards are parceled out, for instance. But how can the country where one grows up -- its mores, laws, culture and all the rest -- not effect content and style to some extent. I believe that it must seep into one's filmmaking, just as it seeps into my writing style.

But, really, thank you so much for taking the time to comment -- and to comment so well!

Anonymous said...

Who does the daughter decide to live with?

James van Maanen, said...

Good question, Anon. That's what we ALL want to know. I'd guess the father, because his situation is the neediest, and his daughter is very good at recognizing need. But that's one of the things Mr. Farhadi wants to withhold from us.