23 January 2012

Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’

Leila Hatami (Simin) and Peyman Moaadi (Nader)

After seeing Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, I joked to a friend that the movie is so good, I can’t believe it’s not French. While it’s true that the picture represents something the French often try — it’s an intimate psychological portrait of a family, with just a few, very good actors — A Separation succeeds on its own terms, too. I’m not the only one who enjoyed it: it’s received excellent reviews and appears poised to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. There’s not a lot I can add, except to say that you really owe it to yourself to see it.

One reason is the film’s portrayal of daily life in contemporary Tehran. Many of us (and I do include myself in that number) have limited exposure to anything Iranian other than news reports about nuclear programs Ahmadinejad’s provocations, followed by emotional/political diatribes about military responses. Our notions are limited, therefore, of what it’s like for rank-and-file Iranian citizens to live in the mullahs’ thrall.

Based on the evidence in A Separation, for Iranians like the central couple in this film, creature comforts are plentiful (microwave ovens! shiny cars!), and even for such secular, educated, even Westernized Iranians, it’s sometimes possible to go about one’s business without running afoul of the system. But there are hidden costs in such arrangements, and when Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) embark on their eponymous separation, every one of the major characters — rich and poor, young and old, devout and secular — is sucked into a maelstrom of moral compromise.

Sareh Bayat (Razieh)

A teacher, Simin is chafing already under the regime, dyeing her hair and wearing her headscarf almost casually, more like a fashion accessory than a legal requirement. Her reason for wanting divorce isn’t that Nader is a bad man, she explains, but that he’s preventing her from leaving the country with their daughter. She feels that young Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter) can’t live up to her potential in Iran, but she punts when the off-camera judge asks her why, and she never says where she wants to move. (My guess is France, since Termeh is seen practicing her French.)

Likewise, Farhadi stops short of directly criticizing the regime, but his film contains many scenes that depict the Iranian legal system unflatteringly. Even the magistrate (Babak Karimi) seems frustrated by the restrictive structure and the endless wrangling. While much of the difficulty arises from the individual personalities involved, how can there be justice when everyone is somehow corrupted?

Sarina Farhadi (Termeh)

They’re also sympathetic, which in turn makes the film sometimes quite uncomfortable: we’re watching a car wreck in slow motion, and we’re also watching ourselves, or people with whom we can identify easily. The actors are attractive, and the naturalness of their art (as well as the fact that we in America are unlikely to have seen any of them much if ever) keeps drawing you in as if you were witnessing real lives in real conflict.

Ultimately, Farhadi’s reliance on a very jittery hand-held camera becomes a commentary in itself: nothing here is truly stable. The audience never really gets a long view, the visual equivalent of the broader perspective that the characters need and don’t get, either.

I’ve held back on plot details, because very little in A Separation plays out as you expect it to do, and that is one of its strengths. Suffice to say that Farhadi’s film will tell you something about modern Iran, but more than that, it will make you think: about politics, about morality, about people you know, and how they treat one another.

Shahab Hosseini (Hodjat)


Anonymous said...

It is a tribute to Farhadi's skill as a film maker that his 'simple' story is being appreciated world-wide and across a wide political spectrum; acclaimed in main-stream western media at the same time as Iranian pro-government circles, both of which subscribe to the dictum 'if you are not with us, you are against us'.
In spite of the apolitical appearance of the movie, most Iranian and some western informed viewers sense in-there some metaphors of a political nature. A major one is explained here.

In the opening scene, Nader says he does not want to leave Iran for many reasons and when challenged by Simin to name one, he mentions his father's need for care and sympathy in the state he is in. To Simin this seems like an excuse. Nader, a man whose honesty and integrity is confirmed, should be seeking a better future for his family in the West, rather than stay behind, helping a father whose situation is hopeless because of Alzheimer's. Then, as the argument builds up, we finally hear laud and clear the ‘Two World Views' :

Simin (Modern)- Does your father any longer know you are his son?
Nader (Patriotic)- But I know he is my father!

The sick father, who no longer knows him but needs his love, his care and his protection so dearly and cannot be left behind in such a state, is of course IRAN!
This interpretation is confirmed when Nader accuses Simin, in a later scene, that she has always been weak and tried to escape when conditions get tough, whereas one has to stand up and face the challenges ahead,.............economic sanctions or worse!

In the opening scene we observe that the question of leaving IRAN or staying there, under the given ‘CIRCUMSTANCES’, is such an important issue that is tearing up an otherwise successful marriage. Well now, what are the reasons for leaving? Simin comes out clearly; to escape from 'CIRCUMSTANCES' in Iran for hopefully better life opportunities in the West. So, little fear of Iranian censors there. But, what are the reasons for not leaving? Here we hear from Nader that there are a thousand. Simin challenges him to name one. And when Nader mentions his demented father, she retorts that this is only an excuse! Yet the director chooses to spend the next two hours of our time, and God knows how much of his own, to take us through what is at best one reason among many, and at worst only an excuse! This makes sense only if this reason, the father with Alzheimer's, is construed by the director to symbolize the way Nader (Farhadi) connects to IRAN and its present predicament. His country, though partially forgetful of his sons, does need him and people like him. Here he is wise to hide from both censors! The Iranian censors do not mind the dissatisfied leaving, and the main-stream western media revels in this. On the other hand, both may consider patriots a nuisance, who are out of tune with their Weltanschauung.

Recently Farhadi was asked if he plans to leave Iran for good. His answer was a categorical No! His reason basically being that if politicians running IRAN (and for that matter America) are narrow minded and do not recognize the contribution that film makers like him are making towards enriching the cultural scene and bridging over the divide, then he feels even more compelled to stay in Iran, where he can best work, face the challenges and fulfill his duty towards his people. Is this not what Nader tells Simin in the opening scene of the movie, albeit in a language that could pass both censors, Thus:
Simin - Does your Father know, anymore, you are his son?
Nader - But I know He is my Father!
In other words, responsibility lies with the side who knows!

William V. Madison said...

Thanks very much for this illuminating discussion. I suspected much the same sort of political themes in the plot, but didn't (and don't) feel adequately qualified to address them myself. I'm glad that you did.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Madison,
Thanks for accepting my comment as helpful. Would it be too much if I burden your readers with some further thoughts on this movie, which can, of course, be more appreciated by most viewers if we do not wrap another layer of meaning around its already complex screenplay. But, I feel obliged to finish what I have begun.
To be sure there is more to this metaphor. Hojat represents the hard-liners, who zealously consider themselves the sole proprietor of religion, morality and patriotism. This ‘gives’ them the right to seek domination over others – even if this entails the use of force against anyone standing in their way, be it the traditional secular patriots (Nader), or their modern cosmopolitan counterparts (Simin) or even the silent but sincere traditional believers (Marzieh). Bending morality or even religious codes (expecting Marzieh to swear on the Koran against her better judjment) for material gain is allowed because God is on their side anyway, no matter what! All this, while IRAN, the patriot’s father, deserves everyone's sympathy and assistance.
But here comes something very important that Farhadi needs to say, and says it beautifully: that Nader will not hesitate to come to Hojat’s help if he is threatened by the Worldly Omnipotent (Nader comes to the defense of Hojat, when the magistrate threatens Hojat with imprisonment. If you think you are not ‘adequately qualified’ to say this yourself, which your thought provoking reviews shows otherwise, then may I suggest to refer the readers to what congressman Ron Paul has had to say on this matter on numerous occasions.