Saturday, March 3, 2012


For several minutes, as the end credits rolled up the screen in untranslated Farsi, nobody got up to leave the theater. American audiences have been taught to expect some extra bit of plot during or after the credits, so as long as Nader and Simin remained waiting on screen for word from their daughter, most of the audience stayed in their seats. Was their wait rewarded? I won't spoil things for anyone, but I will say that Asghar Farhadi's Oscar winner earned that moment. If no one cared, no one would stay if they couldn't read the credits.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been a power of arthouse cinema for at least a quarter-century now, but A Separation is the first Iranian film to win the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. I think that's because, despite sharing many of the general traits of modern Iranian cinema, Farhadi's film is more accessible in its presentation -- more editing rather than long takes, for example -- and has a subject of arguably universal interest. The major Iranian directors tend to take a neorealist approach, avoiding stylization in framing and inhuman camera movement and sticking to material that would seem hopelessly mundane when handled by American filmmakers. Speaking for myself, I'm probably more likely to watch an Iranian film than an American film on the same subject, because the Iranian film offers the bonus of a window into Iran. The Iranian directors are their country's best ambassadors in a way that their government most likely doesn't fully appreciate. For instance, Farhadi was initially refused permission to shoot Separation, though the government obviously relented, and the Iranian media seems to have reacted with ambivalence to the film's global success. But you can find people in any country who complain when a director appears to air the country's dirty laundry for the world to see. However, Separation isn't a particularly political film, though politics does loom in the background and may be present symbolically. There's really one early moment of implicit political menace, and it could well pass unnoticed. That's when Simin (Leila Hatami) insists that her daughter should leave the country with her because she has no future in Iran. Why do you think that? a judge asks -- but he lets the matter drop and there's no hint afterward that Simin is in political peril. Yet the fact remains, and forms the basis of the plot, that she wants to leave Iran.
The reason there's a separation is that her husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) wants to stay. In fact, he feels he has to stay to take care of his Alzheimer's-afflicted father (Ali-Ashgar Shahbazi). He bristles during that initial court hearing (the judge remains unseen and the spouses address the camera) when Simin suggests that the father doesn't know Nader's his son anymore; "I know he's my father!" he protests. His insistence is admirable, but there's also a streak of self-righteousness to it that will emerge in other ways later. But the worst thing about their disagreement at first, from Simin's standpoint, is that Nader is willing to let her go if she wants -- doesn't seem to care if they don't stay together. So even though the judge won't grant them a divorce -- he considers their disagreement a minor one -- they separate informally, Simin moving back in with her mother. That obliges Nader to hire someone to take care of his father during the day, while Nader works in a bank and his daughter Termeh goes to school. This is where the real plot kicks in, as Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to look after the old man on Simin's recommendation. Razieh, who takes her young daughter to work with her, quickly finds herself over her head, unable and unwilling to deal with changing the father after he wets himself. Religion complicates matters -- she calls some sort of theological hotline to ask whether changing the old man is permissible -- but we'll see that class complicates religion even more.

Razieh wants to quit after that rough first day, but recommends her husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini) to take over the job. Nader agrees, but Razieh ends up coming back when her deadbeat hubby is arrested by a creditor -- they still have debtors' prisons in Iran, apparently. She's still not very good at the job, but the situation seems to stabilize until Nader comes home early with Termeh one day and finds Razieh and her daughter out and his father on the floor unconscious, his wrist tied to a bedpost. When Razieh reappears as if nothing had happened -- and as far as she knew, nothing had, Nader flips out, accusing her not only of neglect but of stealing money. Her offer to swear on "our martyrs" that she didn't steal doesn't impress Nader, who finally shoves her out the door. He finds out the next day that Razieh is recovering in a hospital from a miscarriage that she blames on his physical abuse.

A Separation now becomes a kind of courtroom drama that showcases Iran's intriguingly informal criminal justice system. There's little of the "majesty of the law" we associate with American courts; each judge holds court in a modest, bureaucratic office, minimally refereeing a free-for-all of competing testimony. The judge's biggest problem is the recently-freed Hojjat, a hothead piece of trash who constantly threatens Nader and goes extra-ballistic when Nader countersues Razieh for her neglect/abuse of his father. There's a defensiveness to Hojjat that underscores the class difference between the two families. He protests that people like Nader think "we" are animals, and we're reminded of the cosmopolitan environment Nader and Simin live in. Their apartment is decorated with a print of Leonardo da Vinci's self-portrait, a copy of Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World, and other icons of western culture, while Hojjat and Razieh's home is a ramshackle affair with cracked walls all around, and Razieh is religious to the point of hysterical superstition at a critical moment. I get the feeling that the class factor would leap out for Iranian audiences but might be missed by American observers who might be looking for signifiers of religion or political tyranny -- pretty much in vain. Separation left me with the impression that, as long as you're not a political dissident, the Iranian legal system gives you a fair shake. The judge handling the case seems firm and evenhanded, ready to consider every bit of evidence. The stakes aren't as high for the state, after all, as they are for the litigants. Nader is potentially liable for murder if found responsible for Razieh's miscarriage. The case evolves like a detective movie without a detective, as new evidence throws both versions of events into question and Simin's efforts to resolve the trouble through compromise threaten to make matters much worse....

We can say that we might ignore the same story if an American told it, but would Americans tell it? An American Separation was more likely at some times in Hollywood history than others. I can easily imagine a Pre-Code version, for instance, though it would probably be much more hard-boiled yet have an unambiguous happy ending. It might have been done in the Seventies, too, and even today someone might try it, though I'd bet it'd more likely be a Lifetime Original Movie than a theatrical release. In Hollywood, I suspect we're at a low ebb of humanism; it would take at least one bankable star as one of the spouses to get such a movie made and get it attention. In the U.S., humanism often has to be imported under the guise of exoticism. Sometimes that has unexpected benefits. If people go to Separation to learn about Iran, they might also learn something about people in general, and not just that Iranians are people, too. They would have some of the year's best acting from the Iranian cast to thank for that -- more so than Farhadi's efficient, sympathetic direction, the performers make A Separation a worthy challenger to The Artist for Best Film of 2011 -- period.


Anonymous said...

On a more attentive viewing of the film, the opening scene has some strange undetones. Simin asks Nader to explain why he does not leave the country’s ‘circumstances’ behind and join her in leaving Iran for a hopefully better life in the West? Nader says she knows the reasons very well and there are many. Simin challenges him to mention one good reason. Nader claims his demented father’s need of care as just one reason. Simin retorts that this is only an excuse!
Is it too much if a viewer like I, be wondering about all the other multitude of reasons, some of which according to Simin would be the real ones?
Why are these other reasons not put to the judge (viewers)?
Is he trying to say something without appearing on the censors radar?

Sam Juliano said...

Beautiful essay here Samuel. Yes by an measure of serious critical evaluation, one should definitely reach the summary judgement that A SEPATION does challenge THE ARTIST (and THE TREE OF LIFE for that matter) as Best Film of 2011. I fully expected you to embrace this film, and as always you've opened the doors to all kinds of insights about the minimalist Iranian criminal justice system, the universality of this kind of familial drama, and the telling fact about the pre-eminence of Iranian art house cinema on the international scene. There still is of course the neo-realist aspect to this film, and by any barometer of measurement the acting is uniformly electrifying. And yes the film is the first Iranian film to win the Oscar after winning virtually every critical year-end award nationwide and in Europe--it has captured the affections of the artistic community at large, and yes it is straight-forward and accessible. Farhadi's refusal to take sides and basically to disavow politics (with the one exception you rightly broach) is another reason why the film resonates with so many, and it is sociologically a potent window into Iranian life in so many ways.

John Greco said...

The final credits scene you discuss in your opening paragraph happened at my theater viewing too of this magnificent film. You cared so much and was drawn in so deep for these characters that you sat there and waited. Wonderful essay on a brilliant executed film.

Shubhajit said...

Everyone in the theatre waiting till the credits finished rolling, because the two actors continue to be shown during the end credits, must have been an interesting experience - I'd be interested to know what was the reaction of the audience when the credits finished rolling.

As you noted Iran has been a powerhouse in the world of cinema, yet it took the Academy so long to recognize that. A Separation, as you've marvelously critiqued here, is indeed a richly told story of mundane, ordinary human beings - its a deeply affecting human story as also a superb window into the sociopolitical climate of the country.

I only hope that the reason for selecting this film as Best Foreign Film was an aesthetic choice, and not a political one, on the Academy's front - as otherwise it would have done great disservice to this excellent work of art.

Samuel Wilson said...

Anonymous: A lot does go unsaid in the initial courtroom scene but so much is implicit that it may as well be explicit. I felt the same way when Nader denounced Simin for being a "coward" by wanting to run away from the country -- what would he have her do, you wonder?

Sam, I know you're a champion of both The Artist and Tree of Life and I think we agree that Separation belongs in the same elite group for 2011. I feel that I haven't seen enough international product yet to make a truly informed judgment on the year's best, but Separation sets a high standard.

John, I do think it's a matter of learned expectations. At a different point in time, American audiences might have guessed that the credits rolling meant there wasn't going to be a resolution, but thanks mostly to the Marvel superhero movies a new expectation of more information exists.

Shubhajit, I expected the sort of dismay that followed the "non-ending" of Meek's Cutoff, but heard no protests when the screen finally went black. That may be because Separation had made its essential point while many people apparently felt that Meek's might not have had a point -- though I disagree. As for the politics of the Academy, I briefly suspected that they might snub Separation in favor of Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness, since Academy members tend to have a soft spot for anything dealing with the Holocaust. There may have been a sense of solidarity with Iranian filmmakers behind the actual vote, but I think the universality of the experiences portrayed in Separation really made the difference.

Patricia Perry said...

If people go to Separation to learn about Iran, they might also learn something about people in general, and not just that Iranians are people, too.

How true that is! I was so taken by the complexity of the performances and the writing, the way Farhadi gradually peels the layers of each personality to reveal both the honorable and the dishonesty in their actions and intentions.

Your summary here does the film great justice to what I think is the best film of 2011. Nice work.

Patricia Perry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks for a very perceptive comment, Samuel.  Could the father be a symbol for the real reasons to stay?  Farhadi may be meaning to construe the father to stand for Iran, and dementia to be the affliction brought upon the country by those who trample upon Iran's 'ancient and glorious culture'; whether from inside by the fundamentalists or from outside by the 'coalition of the unwilling' through sanctions and threat of aggression.  Nader wishes to stay behind to protect the 'Father' and safeguard the 'glorious culture' by facing all challenges from within and without, plus passing down to next generation (Termeh) all the resilience required for its further development.  On the other hand, Simin being a modern, individualistic and cosmopolitan, would prefer to take the easy way out: stay out of trouble, take her daughter with her to Canada and leave behind her native country, the fundamentalists, the aggressors and the patriotic defenders of the 'glorious culture' to fight it out.  No wonder she is branded as a coward by Nader, as you pointed out.  This, in spite of the fact that she tries to keep her umbilical cord to tradition by picking and borrowing one of Nader's CDs featuring classical Persian music.
Does this sound a plausible explaination, Samuel?  Now we have the hindsight of Farhadi's acceptance speech at Oscar's, which shows how closely he identified with Nader.  So much for being impartial on the screen!

Samuel Wilson said...

Patricia: I agree that a commitment to individual complexity keeps Separation from coming across as propaganda for any side in Iran and makes the film more accessible for audiences everywhere.

Anon, the father certainly has symbolic potential but his and Nader's predicament could exist anywhere and grounds the film in universally recognizable reality. I wonder whether we can distinguish as sharply as you suggest between Simin's "cosmopolitan" attitude and Nader's. The more western icons I saw in the apartment the more I wondered who bought them, and I assumed it could have been either parent. Nader seems committed to having his daughter learn foreign languages and insists in one scene on a more correct translation into Farsi than the teacher's "official" one. From my perspective Simin and Nader are on the same side of the class divide, opposing Hojjat and Razieh. I can see that Simin is more individualist than Nader, but I would probably leave the difference at that.

Anonymous said...

Dear Samuel,
Something more than the demented father's need for care, and the 40 day validity of the residency visa for Canada is the cause of separation. If one zooms on the clues that Farhadi so much uses to be able to tell his gigantic story within the two hour limit, my point gains more weight.
In the final court scene we see people clad in winter outfit which indicate that the 40 day visa must have expired. Even more significant is that Simin, Nader and Termeh all are wearing black; in Iran a sign of mourning for a deceased relative, presumably the father who not only suffered from dementia but needed oxygen to reduce his heart-lung problem.