It’s a Work of Art…But Much More

It’s a good thing for American filmmakers nominated for Best Picture this year that the award can only go to American films. If nominations were opened up globally, they all would have surely fallen behind the Best Foreign Film winner, A Separation. This Iranian film is both a beautiful work of art and an important (potentially) diplomatic voice.

Simin (Leila Hatami) wants a divorce from her husband because he will not move out of Iran with her. Nader (Peyman Moadi) can’t leave because he is the primary caregiver for his Alzheimer’s stricken father. Their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter), also wants to stay with her father. Simini moves out, but only into her parents’ house. Nader hires a pregnant woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to help take care of his father. Razieh and her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), are in dire economic straits; he owes several creditors quite a bit of money. When Nader arrives home to find Razieh gone and his father tied to the bed, he panics. Razieh eventually returns, and in a heated argument, Nader throws her out of his apartment and creates a situation that lands both families in court and threatens to rip both of them further apart.

Award-winning writer/director Asghar Farhadi.

A Separation is really working on two levels, first as a film in and of itself (one of the very best of the year) and, second, as a bit of (un)intentional international diplomacy. Given writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s acceptance speeches at both The Golden Globes and the Oscars, we have to consider that second level. Consider his Oscar speech:

At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy. They are happy not just because of an important award or a film or filmmaker, but because at the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country Iran is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics. I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.

To be sure, there are dangerous political nuts and religious extremists in Iran…just like there are in every country. But, here, Farhadi is more concerned about the more human(e) problems that Iranians, like everyone else, face. Yet they are smothered by politics both domestically and abroad. I would imagine that, for many people, this is their first glimpse into life in Iran, a life that might seem surprisingly banal. Farhadi presents us with individuals and couples facing tough life decisions, strained relationships, and getting on with neighbors who think and believe differently than they do. The great hope here is that, once again, film can serve a unifying and peace-promoting function. It remains to be seen whether Frahadi’s creative voice can drown out the unimaginative sabre rattling that continues to plague relationships between Iran and much of the western world. Hopefully, it will at least encourage many viewers to seek out other Iranian films that testify to the rich filmmaking history and culture of that country.

But before A Separation is a work of diplomacy, it is first and foremost a work of art that excels at every level. Much of its success hinges on writer/director Farhadi’s confidence in his audience, which allows him a level of narrative restraint that is so often missing from the work of his contemporaries. His film is much better for the withholding, although it also forces reviewers to withhold quite a bit so as to not spoil the experience. All of the actors give what are surely career-defining performances. It’s hard to single out one actor’s performance, because when you find yourself so drawn to one character, Farhadi refocuses your attention on another. The courtroom scenes and kitchen scenes in which so much of the film takes place are tightly composed and both simmer and explode with energy. Although many viewers will no doubt connect with much of the film’s story (we’re all facing, or soon will, the task of taking care of aging and ill parents), this is no simple “they’re just like us” film. So much of the difficulties that both the men and women face in the setting of the film is bound up in conservative religious dogma and, the characters imply, an increasingly threatening, conservative political environment.

Divisions abound in both the story and cinematography (by Mahmoud Kalari) of "A Separation."

Not everyone is a devout Muslim. Nader and his wife Simin aren’t, which creates tension between them and Razieh and her husband Hodjat (left). Part of this tension is class- and economic-based. A Separation hints at, subtly and brilliantly, the threat of wedding economic destitution with religious fundamentalism. The film also seems to speak to the absurdity of hyper-conservative religious dogma. In one scene, Razieh calls (a cleric?) to ask if it would be a sin to clean Nader’s father who had just wet himself and his bed. To be sure, a respect for elders and a sense of propriety might be at play here, but the hesitance to immediately help someone in desperate need runs contrary to that respect. Nevertheless, Razieh and Hodjat are committed to their religious ideals, but both of them fall short. Razieh lies (or doesn’t tell the whole truth), and Hodjat is in trouble with massive debt and not a few anger issues. Of course, Nader has his own ideals (although not religious) to which he cannot fully live up to. There are chinks in his armor of integrity and honesty.

For me, the thrill of A Separation is the almost inimitable moral and ethical quandary that it presents. The events that spiral out of control when Nader thrown Razieh out of his apartment simultaneously open up a potential space for grace, healing, and reconciliation across religious, class, and economic borders. Unfortunately, both sides are held prisoner by their own beliefs. Nader sticks to his own “humanist” guns, demanding respect from his peers, but not respecting them enough to be fully honest with them. Razieh’s adherence to the strict doctrines of her faith prevent her from fully revealing her situation to her own husband. Of course, much of that has to do with his tendency toward violent outbursts as well. Razieh’s fear of divine punishment clearly parallels her fear of her husband.

A curious "case" of irreconcilable differences between Simin (left) and Nader (right)...and more loaded staging.

Farhadi has said that this is first and foremost a detective film in which the audience must work to figure out what is going on. He also says that he doesn’t intend this to be a political statement and that art should not first serve that purpose. Yet we (he) cannot ignore that art (especially the great variety) carries with it those implications. As such, A Separation is a welcome voice from an often stereotyped and compartmentalized culture. At the same time, it shows that while what is lost can never be replaced, opportunities for healing and restitution exist in these broken places. Unfortunately, the people who need it so much are often the most significant obstacles standing in the way.

A Separation (123 minutes) is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and is in limited release. Look for it on DVD as soon as you can.