Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 28, 2011 10:20 am 
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How everybody's wrong, and why

Jodaeiye Nader az Simin/Nader and Simin, a Separation is the full title of this new Iranian film that uses neorealist vérité style to weave a tangled skein of quarrels and legal problems (and implied class conflicts) that occur when a secular middle-class family clashes with a more impoverished one after the better-off husband and wife choose to split up. Notable for an unusually intricate and well-worked-out plot that poses many moral issues while remaining curiously bloodless in human terms, Separation almost gets bogged down in the numbing specifics of telenovela-like daily melodrama at first as it sets up its basic issue. When if finally gets going the film takes on almost a mystery-story complexity and, if it's never quite resolved at the end, well, that's life. With this web of fault-finding and recriminations that somehow cancel each other out, in A Separation Asghar Farhadi may have made the quintessential Iranian film.

The basic setup, unfortunately also the least involving scene, shows Nader (Peyman Moadi), a bank employee, facing the camera alongside his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) as a judge considers Simin's request for a divorce. She has had permission to emigrate for some time; its validity is soon to run out. She wants to take their teenage student daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's own daughter) out of the country for a better life. Nader refuses to go. He feels he must stay to care for his Alzheimer-sufferer father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). The judge finds Simin lacks sufficient reason for divorce. She is stuck in Tehran, but goes to stay with her mother (Shirin Yazdanbakhs). Termeh remains with dad and her senile grandfather, of whom she is fond.

To cope in Simin's absence, Nader hires the poor and devout Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to mind his father during the daytime, and Razieh brings her little girl (Kimia Hosseini). The film follows Razieh and her daughter only for several sequences when they're at Nader and Simin's apartment. Razieh turns out to be pregnant, and also unwell. She isn't really able to cope with an Alzheimer's patient and when he wets himself, has to call a religious advisor to know if it is lawful for her to help him clean up and change. When she isn't looking he escapes and goes out to the local newsstand. She goes off, chador flying, to find him and bring him back. A day or so later Nader returns to find Razieh and her daughter out and his father fallen on the floor unconscious with one arm tied to the bed. He and Termeh restore the old man to consciousness, afraid at first he might be dead. Nader finds some money missing. When Razieh returns, he fires her. She protests, claiming she had to go out and did nothing wrong, and in the altercation Nader grabs Razieh and pushes her out.

The next day he learns Razieh is in the hospital and has had a miscarriage. Simon and Nader, who reconnect to deal with this emergency, go to see her. They encounter Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), Razieh's short-fuse husband, who has met Nader but didn't know his wife was working in a strange man's house and caring for another strange man, and would never have allowed it. Before you know it we're back in front of a judge in a crowded police station, with Nader accused of murdering Razieh's unborn son (she was 4 1/2 months pregnant) and Nader counter-charging Razieh with assaulting his father.

This is essentially where the film begins as claims go back and forth and the points of view become increasingly complicated. One issue is whether Nader knew Razieh was pregnant, and the testimony of Termeh's female tutor (Merila Zarei), who had a conversation when Razieh first arrived that Nader may or may not have heard, becomes key. Another issue is: did Nader knock Razieh down the stairs, or did she fall? Neighbors testify. And then: What caused the miscarriage? Did the violent Hodjat (who's already come to blows with Nader) hit her? He has been in and out of prison due to debts, is out of work, and is at his wit's end. His angry vociferation clouds every meeting.

A Separation is a realistic picture of a culture in which everyone is quarrelsome and out of sorts, everyone finds fault with everyone else (with the exception of a few sacred parental and filial family relationships), and everyone lies -- but both secular and religious values have strong positive sides. Nader is stubborn and macho, but also surprisingly open in offering his wife and daughter the choice of how to act. And call it religion or superstition, but though Razieh may lie, she is not willing to do so under oath, for fear of dire consequences from God.

The virtue of this film as of many contemporary Iranian ones is the way it is completely rooted in believable quotidian details. And the main actors, whom Farhadi, whose original background was in theater, had thoroughly coached and conditioned, are quite convincing even if their characters remain opaque and unsympathetic. The claim by some that this is a kind of "Rashomon" seems, on the other hand, quite absurd: the camera sticks very close to Nader's point of view and rarely has scenes without him. The strategy is to follow one event after another in the legal wrangling for what it may reveal of new evidence and new testimony. At one point Nader is in jail and must be bailed out by Simin, and he might be sentenced to from one to three years in prison. But this isn't a film about character so much as about legal, moral, and religious issues. The strategy of constantly revealing new details or accusations may seem irritating, but it keeps your attention and builds up energy, even though a sense of overarching structure is, perhaps intentionally, lacking.

A Separation has won praise for its ingenious plotting. It's a kind of puzzle-film, more intricate than suspenseful (the comparison with Hitchcock is as silly as the one with Kurosawa) -- and with a tension that dissipates rather than is resolved. In addition to being ingeniously plotted and well-acted, however, it's good looking by Iranian standards, with handsome, if sometimes jerky, camerawork by d.p. Mahmood Kalari, who's a mean man with a yellow filter.

Though his name is new to some of us (including me) this is the 39-year-old Farhadi's fifth film, and he has won prizes before, particularly for his 2009 About Elly. A Separation has been shown in a raft of international film festivals, starting with the Berlinale in February 2011, where it won the Golden Bear and the Best Actor and Best Actress awards, and ending with Rio and the New York Film Festival, where it was screened for this review. It has been or will be released in a dozen countries, with limited US release (Sony Pictures Classics) coming December 30, 2011.

A Separation was awarded the 2012 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Best Foreign nominations and awards have often been bizarre, but this film was a great critical success, the biggest US theatrical success of any Iranian film, and had already won many of the Best Foreign awards leading up to the Oscars, so it was an obvious favorite ant it would have been bizarre if it had not won.

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