Saturday, June 4, 2016

A Separation (2011)

Asghar Farhadi’s fifth feature, A Separation (2011), is a naturalistic drama that seeks to tie the microcosm of the family, the individual, and religious institutions with the macrocosm of society at large. This is established in the opening scene as bands of light, moving horizontally, illuminate the screen, making us privy to a montage of documents being xeroxed. From birth certificates to passports and other legal documents we get snippets of information that we can’t really process, but prepares us for what we will watch. For the tenets of commercial dramaturgy with its histrionics and contrived premises will not be humored in this film. Farhadi instead slices away at the veneer of Iranian society by way of a slice of life story.

Introducing our first main characters, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), in a bare room, framed in a medium two-shot, and facing the camera the director deftly co-opts the documentary aesthetic to tell the story. This adherence to reality provokes the viewer to be subsumed by the narrative in a way that belies commercial storytelling. And what’s even more remarkable about this scene is that the director positioned Simin and Nader to be both spatially equal so that an audience would not sub-consciously perceive either one as being more important than the other.
This visual motif of having characters face the camera and speak their lines continues throughout the picture, mainly during the interrogation scenes, and by doing this the audience takes on the role of not being just a passive viewer, but also a judge. Yet this role as judge does not mean that the story and characters exist just for us to praise or condemn. Having had a successful career in Iran as scriptwriter in both radio and television before stepping into directing, Farhadi has a strong background in dramatic storytelling, and “A Separation” showcases just how talented the man is in crafting not just a well-structured plotline, but also characters that could live and breathe outside of the picture’s 123-minute runtime.
The picture’s many conflicts unfold in such a matter-of-fact way that it often requires multiple viewings to dissect just how subtle and minute the changes are from story beat to story beat. And no matter how right we think a character is or how misguided they may seem the next scene upturns those values that we placed upon the characters and in turn obliterating any chance for us to side with one particular protagonist.

A perfect example of this is the conflict between Nader and Simin, a married couple that is on the last leg of their relationship as the film opens. Yet their relationship is not at the brink of expiring because Nader is an abusive husband or that Simin is cheating on him. Their quarrel stems from a somewhat banal reason. Simin wants to emigrate with her husband and daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), to America but Nader refuses due to the fact that he has to take care of his elderly father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. And because neither spouse wants to budge, Simin moves back to her mother’s place. Forcing Nader to hire another woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to take care of his elderly father while he and his daughter are out for the day. Of course, Nader’s decision to hire Razieh leads to greater conflict since we find that she is pregnant and really not prepared to take care of Nader’s father. Also, as we learn early in the story Razieh is a very pious and religious woman, and in Iranian culture it is frowned upon for women to work in the homes of single men. Yet, Razieh has no choice but to work in Nader’s home, for her husband has lost her job and she has a young daughter she must take care of also aside from her unborn baby.

The inciting incident that ultimately unites all the various threads in the story is the death of Razieh’s unborn child. An event that occurs one day after Nader and his daughter come home to discover Razieh gone and his father tied to his bed, unconscious. After confronting Razieh about what happened to his father and also accusing her of stealing some money an altercation occurs between the two and Nader pushes Razieh out of his home which results in her supposedly falling down the stairs resulting in the death of the child she was carrying.

Although, the central debate after this event is who is responsible for the death of Razieh’s baby, “A Separation” delves deeper into the lives of Nader and Simin as well as shining a spotlight on Razieh’s husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini). Farhadi’s humanist ideology comes through clearly as he takes the time to explore each character’s psychology.

Being head strong, Nader is ruled by a personal code that supersedes societal laws and even at times human logic. And what’s even more remarkable are the scenes he spends with his daughter who he not only loves but actually goes out of his way to impart his code to her and have her take on a more active role in society, something uncommon in Iran’s patriarchal culture. Similarly, Simin is also a strong-willed character, but unlike Nader she is not afraid to adapt and change with the situation. It’s interesting to note that Farhadi visually depicts the deterioration of their relationship by having Simin and Nader usually positioned on opposite sides of the frame with an object like a glass door separating the two. And as the gap between the two grows the physical space which divides them in the frame also literally grows.
The complexity of the narrative is also evident in the way Hojjat is not just a one-dimensional antagonist for Nader. Hojjat suffers from an obvious inferiority complex as he belongs to the working class, and is subject to a multitude of class prejudices. His obsessive and borderline violent method for getting justice will be definitely be frowned upon by many, yet the man has just lost a child and having suffered so much humiliation before the start of the picture he comes off as a more sympathetic character.

By film’s end, the conclusion offered is a bitter fruit to swallow as all the players in the drama are forced to face the consequences of the choices they’ve made. Any hope is extinguished as truths are revealed and with no true villain in the piece “A Separation” makes every adult character responsible for the continued sorrows and violence.  Simin and Nader’s daughter Termeh and Razieh’s young daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) began the story as playmates and friends, but end the story as enemies. And yet, Farhadi’s humanist philosophy belies this hopelessness. By film’s end Termeh has grown and developed her own complex view of the world. Society may find a multitude of ways to break her, but Farhadi shows in scene after scene that one must learn when to stick by your code and when to have the dignity to sacrifice your code of honor to something more valuable, family.

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