Thursday, March 08, 2012

FILM REVIEW: A Separation

The Iranian film A Separation has received uniformly positive reviews from critics, sporting a jaw-dropping 99% rating on (94% from the audience). It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year  for writer-director Asghar Farhadi and its screenplay was given an Oscar nomination in the Original Screenplay category (losing to Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, despite Allen's alleged comment that he thought  A Separation was the Best Film of the Year) despite all the dialogue of the film is in Farsi (There are English subtitles). It is considered the best-reviewed film release of 2011.

A Separation is an astonishing film achievement. The screenplay is truly outstanding, and as the New York Times notes (in a beautifully written rave review):
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. 
So what exactly is the film about? Well, it's centered around the marital difficulties of Nader and Simin, a middle-class Iranian married couple who have a teenage daughter named Termeh. Nader works at a bank, and his wife Simin appears to be either a teacher or a professor. The movie begins with the two of them confronting an Iranian magistrate and an emotionally taut scene ensues where we find out that Simin is trying to get a divorce from Nader so that she can go to the United States, which, after waiting for 6 months, she has finally received a visa that will allow the entire family to go. But, the visa will expire in 40 days and Nader insists that he can not leave his father, who has an advanced case of Alzheimer's Disease behind. Simin wants the divorce so she can take her daughter with her to America so she doesn't have to live in Iran "under these circumstances." Nader refuses to give permission to allow his daughter to leave with his future ex-wife, noting that the daughter is living with him, having been abandoned by her mother, who has left the marital home to live with her parents. What do you mean, "these circumstances" asks the disembodied voice of the judge, but Nader knows that she can not answer this question without communicating a non-implicit critique of the Iranian theocratic government, so she remains quiet. For the western audience watching the movie it is an astonishing feat by writer-director Farhadi that the Iranian censors left the scene in the movie presumably due to the plausible interpretation of Simin's comments that she was referring to the domestic circumstances of her home life, not the domestic circumstances of the her country. It is the ability of the movie to communicate subtle commentary on the immediate situation depicted in the movie while also communicating a critique of the Iranian system at the same time makes A Separation an absolutely thrilling experience. As Kevin Turan of the Los Angeles Times says in his rave review of the movie, "A Separation is totally foreign and achingly familiar. It's a thrilling domestic drama that offers acute insights into human motivations and behavior as well as a compelling look at what goes on behind a particular curtain that almost never gets raised."

The movie repeatedly and effectively uses this double lens to provide commentary on  several institutions in Iran, such as the  legal/conflict resolution system, the class divide, the role of religion in society, gender relations and the nature of "truth" and "honor." In addition, for Westerners to get a close-up view of the way regular Iranians live in the city of Tehran is absolutely fascinating. The first thing one notices is how similar and comparable life in Iran looks,with completely recognizable situations and living arrangements. A Separation is a brilliant example of the importance of foreign films to educate Americans about the way the rest of the world lives. The story proceeds through a masterful plot which cranks up the suspense and stakes like the ever increasing bindings on a corset, compressing the audience so that it becomes harder and harder to breather as the movie unspools. Through a series of perfectly reasonable, small mistakes in judgment and ill-considered actions, the stakes in a dispute get raised higher and higher until we are literally looking at a case of life and death from something which basically starts off as an employer-employee misunderstanding.

In the end, though, the movie returns full circle to the dispute around which all the other disputes that spiraled out of control revolved around: the separation of Simin of Nader. However, there is a child involved and in an echo of the great Kramer v Kramer the question of which parent will get child custody becomes central. The ending of the film left me and the Other Half discussing it for hours and days afterwards, as we tried to glean the future lives and decisions of the characters from the insight provided by Farhadi in his brilliant script.

This is a movie that will remain with you for a long time, and that you will enjoy tremendously while watching it and afterwards as well.

TitleA Separation.
Director: Asghar Farhadi.
Running Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material.
Release Date: December 30, 2011.
Viewing Date: March 3, 2012.

Plot: A+.
Acting: A.
Visuals: A.
Impact: A+.

Overall Grade: A+/A (4.16/4.0).

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