Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Separation

It's easy to generalize about foreign films, about how pleasant it can be to see something that ignores the usual Hollywood need for likable characters, familiarity of situation, and neatly wrapped-up endings. We shouldn't ignore the fact that the American market self-selects the foreign films that make it into our conversation here; that distributors cater to a certain audience and ignore the pale genre imitations that ape American cliche. When a film is as good as Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning A Separation though, who cares how it arrived here? Sad, complex, and genuinely conflicted about its characters, A Separation is a piece of richly human work of the sort that American studios just aren't interested in producing very often.

Simin (Leila Hatami) has filed for divorce from Nader (Peyman Moadi), her husband of 14 years. Simin wants the family to leave Iran and settle in the West, but Nader can't leave because of his senile father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) and the couple's teenage daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). In the opening scene Simin alludes to not wanting to raise Termeh in "these circumstances", but that's about as geopolitical as A Separation gets. We're not in the Iran you see discussed on cable news; Simin and Nader are educated, secularized, and not outwardly concerned with Iran's position in the world.  Simin moves out but doesn't make it very far, and the bulk of the film is concerned with what happens when the family crosses paths with Razieh (Sareh Bayat) and Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). This more religious and less affluent couple enters Nader's life when he seeks in-home care for his father, and the ensuing cycle of misunderstanding and accusation proves out just how many meanings the title A Separation has. It's correct to say A Separation isn't geopolitical, but it's rich with detail concerning the politics of class, gender, and religion in modern-day Iran.

To say more about the details of the film's complex plot would spoil the emotional journey, but pay attention since key information is given in an early scene before who all the key characters are has even been established. What's most impressive about A Separation (besides the excellent and unaffected acting) is the way Farhadi engages with genuine ambiguity, both in the way he leaves certain plot points up for interpretation and in his reluctance to judge his characters.  Peyman Moadi's Nader is a complicated and not entirely attractive man of the kind that the Western media doesn't seem to know exists in Iran. I don't think an honest viewer of A Separation can say that the film answers every question about him, or even most of them, but I do appreciate the fullness of the window into his life. The film's center is Sarina Farhadi as Termeh, whose initial desire to keep her parents together evolves into a moral curiosity. A Separation ends on a heartbreaking note; the final choice Termeh is faced with offers this young Iranian no easy future.

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