Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Separations Suck, But This Movie Doesn't -- Reflections on "A Separation" (2011)

Divorce sucks, whether it happens here in the US, or in the houses of Iran. The separation of families is a pox upon all nations, causing generations of children to be raised in schizophrenic environments in which parents wage war over loyalty and pride. I can say all this with certainty because divorce touched my home, too, and wrecked my children. The relief I felt getting out of a cancerous relationship is nowhere near the grief my kids have felt having to constantly judge my ex-wife and myself in an attempt to rediscover their places in a fractured world.

It is this idea that is at the heart of Ashgar Farhadi’s A Separation. This film is about the effects of a divorce on the lives of everyone, not just the married couple or their daughter, but on society at large. There’s a certain amount of disorder with divorce, and this film captures that disorder and provides a wonderful scenario that takes it to a logical and personal conclusion.

We open with Nader (Peyman Moadi) and his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), sitting before a judge in their homeland of Iran, discussing divorce. Simin wants one because Nader is unwilling to relocate their family to another country. She does not want to raise their 11-year old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), in oppressive Iran. Nader wants to stay for the sake of his father, who is at home, stricken with Alzheimer’s. Both have valid arguments for their sides, but neither wish to compromise, so Nader reluctantly grants Simin her divorce, but not custody of Termeh.

Because of Simin’s decision, she leaves the home, which requires Nader to hire a woman to take care of his father during the day. He hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a pregnant woman with a child, who needs the job to pay off her unemployed husband’s creditors. Razieh does not inform her husband she is working for a newly single man – which would be against Islamic law – and this sets the stage for the first major plot point. Razieh struggles to take care of Nader’s father, and her pregnancy doesn’t make matters easier. A choice she makes eventually pits her family against Nader’s broken one in another trial that has very high stakes for everyone.

A Separation is a remarkably astute character study, consistently framing its characters in tight, closed shots that cause us to focus on their faces during these challenging times. Our sympathies are with everyone, even Razieh’s tempestuous husband, who resorts to threatening Termeh as she leaves school in his desperation for justice. Like the judge at the beginning and end of the film, we are asked to look at all sides of the situation and come to our own conclusions. And the ambiguous ending does not let us off the hook, because ultimately, divorce does not have winners or losers, only losers and victims.

The fact that this film is set in Iran may cause some audience members to feel uncomfortable because of the distinct differences between or two cultures (and, admittedly, since until recently we have been at war with them). One of the best things about A Separation, though, is how universal it is. The characters are separated by a number of invisible, cultural lines: class, gender, age, profession. These are dividing lines for every nation, so while there are some marked differences in terms of the justice system (nary a lawyer to be found – Iran may be more advanced than we are in that department), the treatment of women, and driving laws, these differences only serve to underscore all the similarities. Contexts may change, but universal truths never do.

Farhadi is an excellent director, and A Separation is a brilliant film. The last shot alone, as the credits roll over it, is a masterpiece of composition, summarizing everything that came before, and prophesying everything to come in the lives of these characters. It reveals that no matter who wins, no one does, and that divorce upsets the natural order of things. When this film hits DVD/Blu-ray, Netflix, or Video on Demand, it should be a must-see.

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