Top Ten of 2011, #5: A Separation, Asghar Farhadi

A Separation is a fantastic achievement, and a film that should be seen by all.  It begins with a marital dispute between Simin and Nader, and slowly reveals their personalities and breaks down the reasons informing their different belief systems, approaches towards life, and priorities about how to live life.  From the opening scene, where Simin and Nader are pleading their sides to a judge, the film validates both characters while illustrating the problems facing any two people trying to live a shared life.  At a base level, we all have fundamental differences with each other.  No one thinks exactly the same way, and the more we love someone, the more these small differences can ending up creating enormous rifts.  For Simin, it’s the fact that she’s living in Iran, stuck in a world with fundamental belief systems and antiquated sexual politics.  She’s learned to live with it, but she wants something more for her daughter Termeh, more possibilities and a better future that can’t be found as a woman in Iran.  Nader, for his part, understands this and may even agree with her.  However, he has an ailing father with Alzheimer’s, and to him, family is the most important thing in the world.  This includes his father as well as his daughter.  Nader can’t uproot his father, and refuses to leave him behind alone in Iran.  But Simin sees this choice as being at the expense of their daughter’s future.  This has resulted in the erosion of Simin and Nader’s marriage, and while Nader maintains his love for his wife and refuses to say that he wants a divorce, he also recognizes that he can’t and shouldn’t keep her in a marriage against her will.

The Iranian judge, however, sees things in much simpler terms.  Or perhaps their judicial system simply isn’t equipped to deal with subtleties.  To him, this is simply a minor problem within a marriage, and he won’t grant Simin a divorce.  As a result, Simin leaves their home to go live with her mother.  She’s hoping that her absence will convince Nader to relent and finally agree to leave the country, or that their daughter Termeh will finally be persuaded to leave with her.  But Termeh sees her father as the moral center of the marriage and sticks by him.  She harbors feelings of resentment towards Simin and refuses to abandon her father and grandfather by leaving Iran with her mother.  All of this sets up the circumstance where Nader has to hire another woman, Razieh, to come in and help with the cooking and the cleaning, and to watch his father while he’s at work and Termeh is at school.  From there the real narrative of the plot kicks in, and a series of events unfolds that threatens the family’s future and their freedoms.

A Separation does two things better than just about any film I’ve ever seen.  The first is the way it deals with its characters and their belief systems and depicts the ways we communicate with each other and the ways we compromise our lives for our families.  The characters’ self-awareness is heightened by the fact that they live in Iran and within very conservative political and religious systems.  For instance, when Nader’s father soils himself while in Razieh’s care, her religion dictates that she’s not allowed to touch him or help him change his pants.  It’s obvious that there’s nothing sexual going on between them, but the letter of her religion is clear.  So she has to place a phone call to try to explain the situation and get special permission to help him.  Or there’s the fact that she’s agreed to help out at Nader’s apartment without telling her husband.  He’s in debt to some creditors, and recently served some jail time for not being able to pay them back.  She needs to help make money, but she’s not allowed to be in Nader’s home without her husband’s permission.  There’s an entire system of social and religious etiquette at work here that refines these characters’ moral choices; at every turn, there’s an enormous amount of thought and specificity that has to go into every decision.  It’s something, really, that any person should be thinking about when making a decision, but it’s something that these characters have to deliberate on.  They aren’t allowed the kind of lazy, thoughtless, reactionary actions that many American commonly practice.  They’re held accountable for every small decision, and every thing they do means something and has consequences they need to take into account.

It’s fascinating to watch a film where the women are wearing shrouds over their heads, and have to dress in full robes in public so that the men can’t see or touch their skin, but to nevertheless feel there are very few differences between that culture and ours.  It’s an enormous compliment to director Asghar Farhadi that he’s able to cut through such superficial societal differences right to the universal truths.  These people are remarkably similar to us, similarly complex, and dealing with decisions in the same way that you and I would.  They may be living within a sometimes-antiquated system, but the characters themselves are incredibly modern in their thinking.  It’s the strength of this remarkable cross-cultural bridge that’s the other phenomenal attribute of A Separation.

But A Separation isn’t simply the drama of a failing marriage and the choices that people make.  That may be where it begins, but it shares elements with the films of Hitchcock or the novels of Dostoyevsky.  A Separation may be examining morality and how moral choices are either upheld or eroded when a situation dictates some other set of needs, and how those situations can result from a chain of events originating with simple happenstance, but Farhadi builds these elements with masterful narrative structuring that evokes the beats and unfolding plots of mysteries and thrillers.  He’s created a film universal in what it has to say about people, our relationships with each other, and how we try to find common ground, but he’s done it in a form that is eminently entertaining and keeps you on the edge of your seat biting your nails.  And it’s supported by acting that’s top-notch across the board.  Nothing is ever forced or unnatural in the slightest, yet all of the performances are emotionally full and extremely complex.

The only criticism I can possibly level at A Separation is how the ending cops out a bit, instead trying to leave the audience with more to chew on.  A Separation has plenty for the audience to chew on already.  Perhaps it’s meant to underline the fact that no decision is ever all good, and every decision and choice made results in something negative along with the positive.  Part of being an adult is learning to accept this, and being willing to shoulder the limitations that come tied to our freedoms.  And part of being a parent is realizing that we can’t always protect our children; that even when we try to encourage them to make their own choices, that in itself has consequences and places the enormous burden of adulthood on them.  And yet, eventually everyone has to enter into this part of the world; everyone has to learn compromise, accept their failings along with their victories, and live with the consequences of their actions– especially when those consequences are not always directly their fault.  Humans are ultimately fallible, no matter how hard we may try not to be, and we simply don’t always have the control over our lives or the world around us that we would often like to have.

9/10

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