Friday, November 25, 2011


Cast: Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Sarina Farhadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Runtime: 123 min.
Language: Persian
Country: Iran
Verdict: A movie that puts our judgmental nature on the anvil.
Genre: Drama

        Razieh (Ms. Bayat), panic-stricken, is standing on one side of a road. She is pregnant, four months in, working as a housemaid, and the old-man of that house is suffering from Alzheimer’s. He stands on the other side, seemingly having the comprehension of a wooden plank, trying to cross the road as vehicles run left and right. She is new on the job, has a little daughter, and if something were to happen to him hell would probably break loose; humanity comes a little later. Such situations make me cringe, make me cover my face and open a little slit to check if everything’s alright, or in desperate situations exercise my rights as a viewer and even do a little fast forward. I did, only to find that Mr. Farhadi cuts through that moment, cuts through that tension, and rams straight into a happy game of foosball. “All’s well”, says that cut, and greatly relaxes the body. That it is lying, that it is hiding information only to reveal it later and further complicate the “reality”, is a narrative strategy that bothers me greatly. Numerous voices are describing A Separation as a “realistic” drama, which in some ways is true in that whatever happens on-screen is a documentation of that event, and that these events are unfolding in plain sight. Yet, the organization of these documents, i.e. their presentation, especially the “invisibility” of some of these cuts as they jump through time, may not exactly conform to that description. On the contrary, Mr. Farhadi seems to be willfully distorting the reality, and causing deliberate obtrusion in our understanding of this drama.
        Madeo caused me similar troubles a couple of years back, and I might be tempted to label such obtrusions reductive, or maybe even dishonest. But then, I need to, at least for my sake, understand the nature of this obtrusion and ascertain why when a film like Memento distorts the truth, I do not feel offended. Is it because of the integrity of the very structure, or a film’s strict adherence to rules it lays out upfront? Is it because of the aesthetic here, involving traditional notions of reality – a mobile camera, real settings, no background score – a sense of life as it is, although most frames, if not all, offer a shallow field of view? I don’t seem to have an answer at the moment, yet such a cut makes we question a film’s integrity, and seeking justification in the intended ends. A consideration of A Separation’s opening might provide some relief here. Nader (Mr. Moaadi) and Simin (Ms. Hatami), a married couple, are facing us in a two shot, and the very composition shouts “Brechtian!” Having been conditioned on numerous previous occasions, such a shot, asks of us to assume our moral responsibilities of a listener (Alfie), or a judge (Rashomon). Yet, the first words are spoken by the judge, and the words spoken are inferential/judgmental in nature, thereby rendering any authority we have null. We are merely an audience, and the film is constructing for us what I would call a false moral dilemma, these dilemmas seemingly judged from various perspectives exercising their authority as our surrogates. These judgmental figures (moral/ethical/religious) are introduced, or rather deposited in like sediments, one on top of the other. We judge Simin through the eyes of Nader and Termeh (Ms. Farhadi), as she leaves her house, her husband who has an invalid father, her daughter Termeh, to find a future in another country. She is the cause of a feminine rebellion within the harmony of this patriarchal system, and the film gradually traverses the road – from Simin through the teacher through Termeh through Razieh – to lend credence to this movement of questioning this system, if not outright rejecting it. The principal patriarch of the film, a judge looking over the central case of possible homicide, is, not impassionate, and yet while he sips his tea, he seems to be wise and mostly gentle, not susceptible to any moral corruption. He doesn’t seem to share either the condescension on the lower financially-challenged class, as might be suspected of the teacher, or the envy for the more privileged class, as is the case with Houjat (Mr. Hosseini) and some of our judiciary systems. The justice system as personified by the three judges, who feel efficient and personal, and a verdict feels subjective rather than processed through a set of inflexible rules, primitive and accessible, not a symbol of a distant and aloof establishment. There’re several such fatherly judgmental figures – through Nader, through the two judges – and the film doesn’t really undermine their credence as much as it examines their pragmatism and seemingly understands their fallibility.
        In many ways, the judge’s job seems to be what the film probably intends ou of us – to look over the various pieces of reality from the various perspectives and arrive at the truth, a truth that is unprejudiced, fair, reasonable and honorable. Srikanth does an estimation of the visual technique Mr. Farhadi uses here, employing glasses and separations of all kinds – tangible and intangible – and the fact that we’re watching these folks through our very own separation makes us all the more mindful, and in turn implicates our imperfect vantage point and our need to judge. Before judging we’re to question the veracity of the documentation itself and our instinct to take the situation in plain sight (on-screen) as the truth, keeping in mind that two of biggest lies happen out of the sight of the camera – one off-screen, and one that’s been cut. The distortion on Mr. Farhadi’s part then becomes quite reasonable in that regard, and probably even necessary, considering an outright distorted structure might draw attention to itself. As it is, the film is being hailed as a screenwriter’s triumph, to which I only hold Srikanth’s frame grabs as evidence to the superficiality of such claims.
        It is quite interesting the way Mr. Farhadi chains all of these events together, often using jarring jump cuts to sort of pull the events to around this house. Razieh and her daughter are waiting for the bus and the scene cuts to them running and climbing the stairs to the house. Nader looks at his father and goes for the door, and as the camera cuts to the other side we’re in a different day and time. Events smash into each other and pile the complications on. It is all continuous, caused by the principal object of the film, and in many ways its MacGuffin, the Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandfather, who is behind almost every event and every decision within the film, a sort of sacred monolith against which sins are committed and guilt confessed, and he seems to take everything in. Is he the conscience, a sacred relic to be protected, or is he the vestige of a gradually failing present, to be done away with? The film’s final moment has Nader, Simin and Termeh dressed in black, and obligation that is observed for 40 days after the death of a principal member of the family (although Mr. Farhadi says nothing to that effect but his film has made us wiser), and yet the separation goes ahead. Would the past always remain, you know, as a separation between the orthodox (conservative) and the rebellious (utilitarian)? Maybe it does, and Termeh is asked to choose between the two. I suspect even Mr. Farhadi cannot make up his mind.

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