Friday, March 2, 2012

A Separation: Appearances can be deceiving

A Separation (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.2.12

Although ostensibly a drama — albeit a rather austere one — writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation also has elements of a classic mystery.

In the aftermatch of a momentarily careless act that has had ominous
consequences, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, right) begins to realize that her father
(Peyman Moadi) may not be a shining pillar of integrity. Few emotions are as
painful as those experienced by a daughter whose faith in her father is called
into question.
It is, as Farhadi explains in his press notes, a detective story without any detectives. “The audience is in charge of solving the puzzles,” he says, “and there will be as many answers as audiences.”

The clever bit comes from the fact that we don’t initially perceive the canny manner in which Farhadi withholds key pieces of information. His narrative appears to progress in a straightforward, linear manner, but we eventually realize that we’re being misled to a slight degree: put in the position of several of these characters, who base their opinions, feelings and assumptions on what they’ve been told, and what they believe they know.

No surprise, then, that Farhadi earned an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay: a rare honor for a foreign film. And while he didn’t triumph in that category, his film deservedly took home the prize as best foreign-language film. Farhadi made the most of his Oscar acceptance speech, as well, with a gently political message he delivered with the same delicacy and dignity that characterize the people in his story.

His film’s title cleverly references the multi-layered schisms afflicting these characters. The most obvious “separation” is the rupture between Simin (Leila Hatami) and her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi). The film opens as the two of them face a judge, with Simin arguing her case for a divorce. She wishes to leaves Iran with their teenage daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi); this seems to have been a long-gestating plan that originally involved the entire family.

But during the months of preparation, Nader’s father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) has succumbed to the helplessness of an Alzheimer’s haze. Nader now refuses to leave the old man.

Our presumptions surface immediately. Simin’s dismissal of her father-in-law’s place in their family seems harsh and callous; then again, we soon realize that she has been expected to provide full-time care for the old man, on top of her career outside the home. We also must be careful about Western assumptions; although Simin and Nader clearly have a progressive relationship, he nonetheless expects a certain degree of fealty from his wife.

When she elects not to provide it, he hurts her in the way guaranteed to do the most emotional damage: He declines to contest her request for a divorce, while insisting that Termeh continue to live with him. Even though Simin angrily leaves and moves in with her parents, Nader knows that she won’t go far without her daughter. The result is an uncomfortable stalemate.

Termeh, by far this story’s smartest and most observant character, recognizes the power she holds ... and hopes to exploit it in order to reunite her parents.

Meanwhile, Nader — with a full-time career at a bank — needs somebody to look after his father during working hours. Simin helps him hire a maid, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who accepts the posting despite her discomfort with the amount of travel required each day.

The larger problem, though, is that Razieh is left alone with a man: a perilous breech of propriety in her culture, even though Simin’s father is infirm. Worse yet, Nader has offered Razieh this job without first receiving permission from her husband: another serious lapse of protocol.

But although Razieh is a deeply pious and proper woman, she conquers her discomfort through necessity; her family desperately needs the money, and — she reasons — the old man can be kept in his room.

Alas, it doesn’t work out that way. On her very first day, Simin’s father slides into incontinence; Razieh reluctantly embraces the challenge of cleaning him (after first making a phone call and consulting a religious advisor: a nice resource to have at hand).

Even so, this proves too much for Razieh; she suggests, at the end of the day, that Nader hire her husband (Shahab Hosseini, as Hodjat) instead. Although not entirely comfortable with this expanding parade of strangers entering his home, Nader agrees; he is further encouraged when Hodjat visits the bank, to introduce himself.

But these intentions also go awry. Although Hodjat is expected, Razieh returns the next day, the woman making vague excuses about her husband’s absence, and promising that he’ll take over henceforth. Unfortunately, this particular day breeds multiple cases of bad judgment and frayed tempers, resulting in a crisis that triggers involvement by the authorities.

Never a good thing in Iran, it turns out, where all conflicts — large or small, civil or criminal — are argued in a tiny room, before a single interrogator. No lawyers or advocates are allowed; the parties involved simply quarrel over each other, while the magistrate asks leading questions and cautions against any insulting or even impolite remarks.

We recall, at this point, how Nader and Simin argued about their relationship — as this film began — before just such a single individual (left unshown, so that husband and wife conduct their disagreement directly into the camera, and therefore directly at us viewers).

Farhadi’s narrative skills are particularly adept during these tribunal scenes. Although we get a whiff of judgmental disapproval regarding the “archaic” nature of such proceedings, the filmmaker is so subtle with his editorializing, that we can’t be sure our impression is accurate. The interrogator’s questions are shrewd and incisive; he skillfully attempts to discern truth from falsehood, while — most crucially — attempting to establish who knew what, and when.

Great weight is placed on honesty; for some of these characters, lying is a sin far greater than any other. We also perceive — as Farhadi intends us to — that somebody willing to blithely lie while placing a hand on the Koran will have a great advantage over those who feel constrained by absolute truth.

Despite a deeply rooted sense of sticking up for herself, Razieh cannot ever cross a threshold of uncertainty; if she “has doubts” — a phrase pregnant with implication, in this culture — then everything changes.

Termeh, similarly, has been raised properly, by parents who instilled a profound allegiance to truth. It’s something she doesn’t even question, and this film’s two most powerful moments come when Termeh’s innocence is lost: first when she comprehends that people will lie; then when she understands that circumstance might prompt her to do the same.

Sarina Farhadi, the filmmaker’s actual daughter, handles the complexities of these scenes with impressive delicacy and grace. She’s a natural on camera, and Termeh is perhaps this story’s one truly sympathetic character: the (initially) unbiased observer, through whose eyes we get the clearest appraisal of events.

Everybody else seems burdened — and distracted — by emotional stuff.

And bias. Nader, Simin and their friends and colleagues belong to a comfortably well-off middle class that is inclined to look down upon the lower-caste likes of Razieh and Hodjat, despite relying on their hard work. Religious subtleties also are present; although everybody follows the Koran’s teachings, Razieh, Hodjat and “their kind” apparently don’t do it quite “properly.”

So: The title of Asghar Farhadi’s film refers not only to the marital split between Nader and Simin, but also to this unpalatable class distinction, as well as the shattering fracture between the comfortable black and white extremes that initially characterize Termeh’s beliefs, and her dawning awareness that the world is, instead, vulgar shades of gray.

Eventually, much is made clear, at which point we become de facto judges ourselves. Who is truly in the wrong? Whose sins are greater? What outcome would be fair to all parties? Farhadi also concludes his film on a melancholy note of ambiguity, leaving one crucial question answered only in our imaginations.

Although his real-world daughter perhaps holds our emotions the most, Farhadi’s entire cast is strong, persuasive and naturalistic; we quite frequently experience an uncomfortable sense of eavesdropping on moments of painful intimacy. Bayat also shines as the emotionally drained and increasingly desperate Razieh: certainly a victim of her lot in life, and in this country, aside from the additional grief this situation brings.

Farhadi’s film is a thoughtful, fascinating glimpse beyond the curtain of a cultural divide (another “separation”) made much worse by the demonization prompted by current political events. More than anything else, though, A Separation is a reminder that the lives of essentially good people can be ruined by fleeting, anguish- and temper-fueled acts that have grave consequences: a universal truth in Iran, the United States and everywhere else.

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