My notes on Yu Darvish, Zack Greinke, C.J. Wilson, and Brandon Belt are up, as is a short piece on Baltimore promoting Dylan Bundy. I also chatted on Wednesday.
The Iranian film A Separation won universal acclaim from critics on its release last winter, landing the top spot on Roger Ebert’s list of his favorite films of 2011, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and prompting Will Leitch to harass me to see the film. (He’s since moved on to taunting me about Trouble With the Curve.) I did finally see it this week and it is among the best movies I have ever seen, and had it been filmed in English it would have been a lock for a Best Picture nomination – and should have gotten one anyway.
The separation of the title refers to the dissolution of the marriage between Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (the beautiful Leila Hatami), a schism spawned by Simin’s desire to leave Iran permanently and raise their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) in another country, while Nader refuses to leave his ailing father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and is rapidly fading. The film opens with Nader and Simin arguing in front of a judge who refuses to grant her petition for divorce, because Nader doesn’t consent and she lacks sufficient grounds. Simin moves out, so Nader hires a woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat, frumped up to appear less attractive), from a lower economic stratum to take care of his father during the day. Razieh struggles with the job, leading to an accident that draws her, her volatile husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), Nader, and Simin into a legal battle that threatens to tear both of their families apart.
The power of writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s script, which was nominated for Best Original Screenplay but lost to something written in English, is in its simple, unsparing realism. At several points the film seems to move as if in real-time, with painfully rendered arguments between Nader and Simin, Nader and Razieh, Hodjat and pretty much everyone in sight, and eventually Termeh, who naturally finds herself caught between the warring sides. The drama is organic, growing inevitably about of a few small misunderstandings, many of which are never cleared up (as they might not be in real life), each of which adds exponentially to the misery of the people involved.
This degree of attention to the mundane aspects of the conflict allows Farhadi to populate the film with small, intense details that punctuate the pervasive despair of the central characters. Nader doesn’t want to leave his father, who doesn’t recognize his own son but asks several times for his daughter-in-law, and feels her absence more than he would Nader’s. Hodjat’s fury is driven by his own unemployment and lingering resentment over the injustice done to him by his former employers. Nader tries to comfort Razieh and Hodjat’s young daughter, Somayeh, played by a first-time actress, Kimia Hosseini, who probably should have won the Academy Award for Best Eyes. And the final plot point hinges on something so small and so brilliant that a simple request unravels the entire resolution, leading to a final scene that may just rip your heart out for good, assuming you still had it after the first 110 minutes.
Truth, or the futile search for it, lies at the heart of A Separation, as every crime or offense that takes place in the film leaves room for doubt about culpability or even whether a crime was committed, with unreliable witnesses and dubious motives shading nearly every character’s words and actions. With the truth thus obscured, Farhadi gives us terrific portrayals of human responses to this uncertainty – usually interpreting events to fit their predetermined notions. The five principal actors are all superb in roles that demand that they show a broad range of emotions and convince the viewers that there is real empathy underlying much of the suspicion and the senses of betrayal.
It’s a small miracle that Farhadi was even allowed to make a film that is far from subtle in its criticism of life under an autocratic government in Iran. The oppressed status of women is central to the plot, in Simin’s inability to unilaterally leave her husband, in her (never fully elucidated) reasons for wanting to raise Termeh somewhere else, and in Razieh’s difficulties in finding and holding a job. The absurdity of the justice system and the stark differences between economic classes – especially Hodjat’s fear that he will be and Razieh will be treated unfairly by the authorities – also play significant roles in the story, and the overall picture painted of Iranian society is quite unflattering.
A Separation blows away most of the other 2011 films I’ve seen; of the four Best Picture nominees I’ve seen, only The Descendants comes close, yet a head-to-head comparison makes the Clooney vehicle seem ham-handed and superficial. I don’t know if A Separation was the best movie to come out in 2011 – I still haven’t seen Shame, for example – but it is the best I’ve seen from that year by far, and the presence of subtitles shouldn’t deter anyone from watching such a precise, heart-wrenching work of art.
If you’ve seen A Separation already, check out Children Of Heaven, another Iranian film that shares this film’s subtle approach and deep empathy for its main characters.