Wednesday, 4 January 2012

“It became serious…”

A Separation: directed and written by Asghar Farhadi

Shockingly, without spoilers…
If I were to immediately attempt at drawing parallel, one could say that Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (the Iranian submission for Best Foreign Language Film) is something of a structural relative to Noah Baumbach The Squid and the Whale. And, were I to say that I’d probably be grasping at straws because even though both rest most heavily on the eventual divorce of a couple and the effect on their brood the two are not that similar and I’m most likely doing a disservice to both my implying as such. Still, I bring up The Squid and the Whale because I think it’s the recent film I can recall most easily which does a credible job of assessing the way which divorce affects the people involved, even though I felt it was a bit too whimsical and occasionally limited for its own good. A divorce is what looms over the entire narrative of A Separation, the title mentions it. I have admitted before that I place a great deal of emphasis, sometimes unnecessarily, on titles. The actual translation of the film’s Persian title would be “The Separation of Nader from Simin”. I think I might be much fonder of the leaner “A Separation”, though. For, even as it portends to the obvious separation at the film’s crux, it also suggests the film’s greater interest (unlike, for example, The Squid and the Whale) in assessing the issues which abound in the society its characters inhabit, most of which rest on that chilling noun – separation. Which would mean that A Separation is not really as clinical as one would expect, it’s not really about a divorce…

And, yet, it opens a bit clinically. Considering the precise way it opens, both times, I did not expect for A Separation to be as interested in the softer social beats it explores. And, the title of “separation” is admittedly a cold one. But, for a film with a title suggesting coldness, parting and disinterest A Separation isn’t detached. Sure, the first actual opening shot of passports being scanned might seem that way, and then it’s followed by a shot of two people – a man and woman – at a court arguing for a divorce. It’s not clinical, but it does seem - well, lacking in spontaneity. But, then, if I return to the original title (yes, titling again) it contains a potential duality. The phrase “The Separation of Nader from Simin”, any student of syntax would know could mean a separation which has already occurred or a continuous act of something being separated. And, it’s the latter which I feel applies most to this film. Even as the visit to the court materialises, the actual separation is still in the process of being fully realised.
But, I’ve gotten ahead of myself because I have not even moved to the plot – and while there’s not really a whole lot of it – it’s of voluminous importance. For, in that opening scene Nader and Simin are at loggerheads because she wants to leave the country and he cannot, he will not, because his father suffering from Alzheimer’s needs him. The scene is important because it sets the tone for the entire film. When Simin tells Nader, “He doesn’t know you, anymore” and Nader responds, “But, I know him” makes way for all the moral ambiguity which film shall become so fond of taxing us with. For the moment, a decision has not been made. Simin moves to her mother, and Nader must look for a caretaking to care for his ailing father. Simin suggests the sister-in-law of a friend, a woman with a husband who seems like a typical husband but for his vaguely combative outbursts. The film’s subtleties in examining class differences necessitates that the two couples shall clash, and that they do – with each other, and among themselves. And, it seems like right before our eyes A Separation unfolds from a familial drama about a domestic squabble to a legal drama to a social drama about religious taboos, the role of women in society and the pains of childhood. It touches on everything, and yet it’s not really about it specifically.

Take, for example, one of my favourite bits in the film where the camera dances between the children of the two couples. What is Farhadi telling us? Are we learning about the injustices of the middle class against the lower classes? Are we to think how both, despite their difference in “status”, might grow up subservient to their husbands? (For despite the way they wield their powers, it’s interesting how both Simin and Razieh are still not on even keels with their husbands.) We’re never show what he wants us to think, we’re not even sure he wants us to make up our mind. The film’s climax depends on one of the biggest “movie” conceits of keeping the audience in the dark, but it works because the moral ambiguity of the tale depends on it. For the film to have its greatest effect the audience needs to be coerced into realising that as Tracy Lords said, “The best time to make up your mind about people is never” (or some variation, at this point in the morning I’m much too lazy to certify the actual quote). For this to work it depends as much on Farhadi’s excellent script and directing and as much on the talented band of actors who elicit all the grey character shadings as you’d hope preventing any character from emerging unscathed from our perusals unable to completely love or hate any, but impossible to not feel for them all.
It makes sense that it all builds from something as innocuous as an elderly man with little screen time. It shouldn’t become as big an issue as it does, but then, who are we to say? We can’t really say that any of the characters is unjustified in their conceits.



CS said...

So looking forward to seeing this film! It is supposed to open here soon, but I have been eager to see it since TIFF.

a famous historian said...

Great review, thanks. The film's final shot alone makes it a worthy Oscar contender, but the ambiguities (no one is totally in the right or in the wrong, everyone's actions are understandable if not always justifiable) makes it profoundly human too.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

cs it's a powerful one.

a famous historian that final scene is profound.

Squasher88 said...

Just watched it. It's so brilliant that I feel unworthy of reviewing it.