Oct 3, 2011

NYFF 2011: A Separation

Out of four movies I've seen in the Festival, A Separation, an Iranian film written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, is at the top of the list so far. Compared to some of the more self-consciously cinematic films we've seen, A Separation is almost decadently rich in human complexity, while it shows no interest in genre or style. This is not to say that it is not meticulously made. It is an astounding directorial feat, extraordinarily acted and edited, and so powerful that you forget you are watching a movie.
A married middle class couple in Teheran is going through a painful separation. The wife wants to emigrate and take with her the couple's only child, a 12 year-old girl. She wants the husband to come with them. The husband will not go. His father has Alzheimer's and he needs to take care of him. We learn this at a brilliant opening scene, the couple looking straight at the camera, telling their grievances to a judge. Although we hear the judge's questions and admonitions, we never see him, but soon we are as involved as he is in the painstaking minutiae of marital recriminations, since we are watching from his point of view.
This simple separation sets in motion a spiral of consequences that affects far more people than this nuclear family. From the very beginning, we are asked to be the judges, and soon we will realize that it requires beyond Salomonic wisdom, patience and fortitude to figure out what is just and what is true. Life is extraordinarily complicated, and life under the current Iranian regime, makes it more so. This movie is probably the Iranian film that paints the most comprehensive, detailed look at life in Iran today, and it broadens considerably our limited notions of what that is.
This opening scene could be a spectacular short film in itself. People talk over one another, the judge seems either blasé or exhausted about the whole thing, but the law is that the child can't leave without the father's consent and that the divorce needs to have absolute mutual consensus. They are at an impasse.
Good luck to me trying to summarize the plot. I don't think I'm spoiling anything, since in this movie God is in the details, and I am grossly simplifying, but proceed with caution:
The wife decides to move out of the house until the issue is resolved, so the husband needs to hire a woman to come and help him take care of his father. It is evident that it was the wife who bore the brunt of the responsibilities at home, and neither the husband nor the daughter know how anything works in that house. The cleaning woman, who brings her adorable little daughter along, was not told that she had to touch the father, let alone clean up after his incontinence. This constitutes a severe religious problem for her. She can't even tell her husband that she is alone in a house with a man. So the employer lied to her, and she lies to her husband, because she is desperate for work. All lies seem to come from simple fears: the employer urgently needs this woman and is afraid she won't work for him because of her beliefs. The woman is afraid of offending God and her husband. One day, the guy comes home to find the woman and her daughter gone and his father on the ground, disconnected from his oxygen tank. The woman comes back from an errand and he is so angry that he fires her. As he fires her, he pushes her out the door, she falls in the stairway.
Anybody who comes from a country with deep economic divisions will immediately recognize the patronizing tone of the husband towards the cleaning woman, and the endless reserves of frustration and anger from her unemployed, debt-riddled husband towards the well-to-do and educated. We never think of Iran in those terms, because all we know about is censorship and religious rule, but even though this religious reality is essential to the plot, the topic at the heart of this movie is not that, but class warfare. It just so happens that the classes are divided in terms of religion as well: the rich are progressive and not religious, and the poor are devout to the point of superstition. They will be satisfied if someone swears on the Koran (but even they, in a pinch, are ready to bend the rules). The rich could not care less about these notions. You can imagine the clash of cultures.
Once the force of unexpected consequences is unleashed, you sit at the edge of your seat, listening to different people give their versions of what happened. The law deals with absolutes, but human life is mired in nuance and equivocation and ambiguity. This is the source of such unbearable, rising dramatic tension throughout the film that it is no wonder that A Separation is being promoted as a thriller. Rashomon has been mentioned in connection to this film, but the style could not be more different, starting from the fact that everybody is in front of the judge at once and there's a messy debate between the parties. Revelations unravel in an endless spiral of motivated, justified, complex lying. Other people are asked to give testimony and they too suffer the consequences of bearing witness to a simple conversation.
What is the purpose of the truth? Can it be bent? Can it accommodate human mistakes? Who is to blame? Is the law fair or impossible? Can ancient notions of honor coexist with life in a modern country? At one point the judge cradles his head in his hands and we feel his pain. Who could possibly mete real justice on such murky terrain? Even as he refrains from depicting the Iranian regime in simplistic terms, Farhadi's insistence on human fallibility is the strongest point he makes against a regime that governs through divine absolutes.
The wonder of this movie lies not only in that it has an incredibly complex and sophisticated plot, but that it never abandons the wisdom, humanity and the fairness with which it treats its characters, none of whom are purely evil or purely good, but most of whom are maddeningly self-interested, irrational, human. It deliberately leaves some of our questions unanswered. After spending such an intense time with the characters, we probably can come to our own conclusions. But it is much more than an incredibly compelling legal procedural. What makes A Separation enormously moving are the bonds between parents and children, the unbearable loss of family cohesion, for rich or for poor.

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