Friday, January 13, 2012

Review: "A Separation" (2011)

Certain themes in A Separation, Asghar Farhadi's widely acclaimed Iranian social drama, are, on some level, universal. Legal disputes, marital struggles, relationships between parents and children; these are all things which on some level, connect to us, whether it's on a personal or distant level. Yet what makes A Separation different, and potentially off-putting, is that the film functions as both a social drama and a look at modern Iranian society. This being the case, certain aspects - namely why characters do what they do - can be frustrating to watch, because they wouldn't be major issues in western society.

These are, however, not problems with the film, but simply issues in Iran, and to confuse them with the strength of the acting, story-telling, and writing, would be a mistake. This is an excellent, well-told story about a series of circumstances and attitudes that are so foreign to the western mindset that it's easy to label them as archaic. But in A Separation's specific case, it's not because Farhadi's writing is dumb or contrived; it's simply trying to be accurate in depicting a frustrating society. This may keep the film from being traditionally "enjoyable" in any sense, but as a striking and eye-opening piece of social film-making, its power is undeniable.

Set in contemporary Iran, the film starts off with Simin (Leila Hatami) trying to seek a divorce from her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi). She wants to leave the country with their daughter Termeh, he doesn't because of his old, Alzheimer's-afflicted father. The key problem: Simin can't leave with Termeh unless Nader leaves too, or at least gives his consent. Since he refuses, the divorce request is denied, so Simin decides to live with her parents while she continues to try and convince Nader to allow Termeh to leave. With Simin's absence, Nader hires a very religious (in contrast to the rather secular-seeming Nader and Simin), slightly squirrelly woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to take care of his father while he is at work.

If this seems like enough to fill a single film, it probably is, but Farhadi keeps adding angle after angle to his expansive (yet ultimately intimate) tale. The result is a rich, often tense narrative that gives a piercing look at a world and lifestyle that is hard for anyone not from the region to fathom. In one of the most informative (and, from an objective standpoint, frustrating) scenes comes when Razieh discovers that Nader's father has soiled his pants. Yet before she goes to help him change and clean himself, she paces in thought, and then calls her imam to ask if it will be a sin to touch a man, despite the circumstances. But as strange (and even silly) as some of these actions seem, they are equally compelling and enlightening. Coupled with the rapid, high-strung dialogue exchanges, what could have been a fairly mundane domestic drama elevates itself to become an almost epic tapestry of motivations and goals. Even from the opening scene, a single near-static shot where Nader and Simin argue their cases before a judge, it's difficult not to be gripped by Farhadi's exchanges, which often occur between two diametrically opposed characters. That the dialogue is delivered with such blistering intensity by the cast doesn't hurt. What could have come off as over-written or stagey feels perfectly natural in the hands of the ensemble, especially the clashes between Nader and Simin.

Where A Separation runs into trouble is that it is so intent on using its story to paint a portrait of Iran, that is often comes off feeling academic. Gripping, yes, but still missing just that extra element of heart, the absence of which doesn't become fully apparent until after the credits have started rolling. Farhadi's characters do not lack depth, nor do they feel like puppets. At the same time, each one seems calculated to serve the plot strictly to the point of servicing the message. But the bigger issue, however, is simply that as good as Farhadi usually is at making the points he wants to make, he sometimes makes a point multiple times. The story is draining enough as it is, and the occasional repetition throws off the generally well-executed pacing and story flow.

But in the end, these quibbles do little to diminish Farhadi's achievements. Though its visceral engagement comes more on an intellectual (rather than emotional) level, its effectiveness is difficult to shake. What starts as a simple desire for a divorce gradually and elegantly evolves into a larger narrative without ever losing its emotional intimacy. It may not be an enjoyable viewing experience, nor a cinematic journey you'll be jumping up and down to take again any time soon, but it is, ultimately, important and must-see viewing.

Grade: A-/B+

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