A Separation written, produced and directed by Asghar Farhadi
Reviewed by Kaveh L Afrasiabi
PALO ALTO, California – The idea of art imitating life is exquisitely implemented in the highly-acclaimed Iranian movie, A Separation, which has been nominated for two Oscars, Best Foreign Movie and the Best Original Screenplay.
It is Asghar Farhadi’s fifth film, illuminating aspects of life and people in Iran in a clear, precise and subtle form that is bereft of symbolism and full of cinematic realism.
Like Farhadi’s previous film, About Elly, this movie offers a distinctively Iranian buffet of class, cultural, normative and psychological issues, some of which, like the ethics of caring for
elders, are universal and resonate with a global audience.
Both films zoom in on the issue of truthfulness and (in) convenient lies, although A Separation is more restrained by comparison and, as a result, somewhat inferior to About Elly, Farhadi’s finest film yet touching on taboo love, which has grown more resonant with time.
Farhadi’s verite style – of projecting every day reality, with all its complexities and dynamic tensions, straight on the silver screen – is refreshingly divorced from any directorial license notorious in “new Iranian cinema”. This enables him to make subtle judgment on the various themes such as gender relations and the role of religion and secularism – ie, standard ingredients of tales of “tradition versus modernity”.
The movie begins and ends with somber scenes at a family court, but strictly speaking is not a “divorce movie” as mistakenly labeled by some movie critics. Its main protagonists, a middle-class husband and wife, experience a separation, motivated by their disagreement on emigrating out of Iran, but throughout the movie the pair show all the traits of a married couple maneuvering with each other in the course of what appears as (most likely) a temporary rupture.
Their (intensely proto-intellectual) 11-year-old daughter is given the choice to pick her guardian, left ambiguous at the movie’s conclusion, yet sufficiently open to the suggestion that she has her own scheme of how to reunite her parents.
For average Western viewers, accustomed to the negative stereotyping of Iranian males as pathologically patriarchal, thanks to the singular contribution of the popular movie, Not Without My Daughter, this movie presents a timely correction.
Offering a more sympathetic portrayal of Iranian men, as well as Iranian women, it steers clear of any hints of male chauvinism and its dirty clutches of power and domination.
A fan of Harold Pinter, the British playwright, Farhadi has infused Pinteresque elements in A Separation. These include the working-class anger and frustration of the other husband in the movie, whose pregnant wife works as caretaker for the main couple and their Alzheimer-stricken elderly father – until she is unceremoniously dismissed for dereliction of duties.
From a crushingly ordinary beginning, the movie evolves into a unique melodrama that combines subtle glances and pauses with a crisp dialogue that avoids any ideological messages or noise; like Pinter’s works, here the pauses or glances are not simply the elements of character portrayal, they are “freezes” of action to indicate that we are witnessing another layer of reality.
In his earnest fondness for political neutrality, Farhadi nonetheless teases us with a passing whisper at Iranian middle class’ political discontent – in the opening scene when the estranged wife, played brilliantly by Leila Hatami, reveals her preference that her child does not grow up under the present “circumstance” in Iran.
Her silence to the magistrate’s question of “what circumstance” is also revelatory of a self-censorship by a modern middle class that in some sense feels culturally squeezed, indeed the only “symbolic” scene in the entire movie.
In the ensuing maelstrom, triggered by the accidental tragedy befalling the female caretaker and her unborn child, both couples discover a system of equal justice treating them fairly and without prejudice, a departure from the Western stereotype of Iranian justice as archaic or rather barbaric.
This, together with the film’s accurate portrayal of the pull of faith influencing the individual’s behavior (eg, the female caretaker consults with a religious dignitary as to whether or not she can clean the sick elderly man and she later sacrifices a substantial sum over a religious principle) reflect a quasi-affirmation of the status quo that is increasingly under Western siege nowadays.
Simultaneously, in his non-combative turn on faith, loyalty, law and social stratification, Farhadi brings to light the contemporary hardships of the Iranian working class, which is bound to be magnified as a result of comprehensive Western onslaught of sanctions against Iran.
The only villains in the movie are the objective circumstances, the fluid contexts of social existence that trigger events, accidents, and complex interactions, yet in terms of the movie’s zeitgeist, the context of foreign-induced hardship forms the implicit background, thus giving it an indirect political urgency. Its Oscar nomination by the American movie industry, hitherto more attuned to Islamphobia and “clash of civilizations” than tolerance of the Muslim “other” and civility,  may be rightly viewed as a cultural or artistic ceasefire that, hopefully, can jolt the American decision-makers that their current warmongering approach toward Iran is in dire need of reconsideration.
In a certain sense, A Separation deals with the cross-cultural gaps or separations, interiorized in the context of intra-family interactions between the middle class and working class characters, and raises awareness of the need for better understanding of the layers of meaning that lie beneath the surface realities, not unlike the philosophical discourse of Terrence Malick in his latest movie, The Tree of Life.
But while Malick is characteristically American in his grand ambition of disclosing the mystery of nature, cosmos and humanity, Farhadi micro-focuses on the Heideggerian Dasein of instant existence that is simultaneously both mundane and electrifyingly dynamic, causing the bumps and bruises of shifting perceptions and character developments.
There are profound stylistic differences between Farhadi and Malick, such as Malick’s overusage of soundtrack as an integral part of his cinematic narrative, compared with Farhadi’s minimal reliance on music that reflects an over-confidence in the ability of storyline to carry the movie forward (an ambition that does not work all the time).
Nevertheless, a limited comparison between the two directors is called for simply because of their distinct abilities to focus on family relations and turn the cinematic medium into a rich recipe for thoughtful provocations.
Together, these two movies, made in separate continents, remind the audience of the vital heartbeat of aesthetic humanism that beats in the East and West.
1. See Afrasiabi, Persians and Greeks: Hollywood and Clash of Civilizations.
A Separation written, produced and directed by Asghar Farhadi. Distributed by Film Iran (Iran). Sony Pictures Classics (US) Memento Films (worldwide). Release date(s) February 1, 2011 (Tehran Fajr Film Festival), February 15, 2011 (Berlin Film Festival). Box office: $3,100,000 (Iran), $9,655,000 (worldwide).
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).
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