Saturday, February 11, 2012

From Iran: A Separation

A Separation is an unsavory gruel of overheated conversations, long-standing resentments, deep familial affections, hopes for a better life, unshakeable religious faith, and economic desperation. The plot thunders on like an express train that’s jumped the rails, and though the violence, in the end, amounts to little more than a few slaps and shoves, every frame carries an uneasy current. The two-hour film, shot with natural light in apartments and on the streets of Tehran, goes by in a flash. It’s Iranian, but as we leave the theater we’re likely to have Aristotle’s theory of poetic catharsis running through our heads: a sense of purification after the release of pent-up or horrific emotions.

As the film opens, eighteen months have passed since the Iranian couple at the center of the action applied for a visa to leave the country. The visa has now, finally, come through, but Nader is unwilling to leave without his father, who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. His wife, Simin, considers it imperative to leave Iran for the sake of their daughter, Termeh, a bright and seemingly docile adolescent who’s obviously taking in every angry work exchanged in the apartment.

However, Simin doesn’t want her father-in-law to come along. Though it’s never mentioned, this is probably another reason she’s so eager to leave Iran: she’s the one who takes care of him, morning, noon, and night, though he doesn’t recognize anyone and seldom speaks.

It’s a tough situation, and it becomes tougher when Simin leaves the apartment to move back in with her parents. Most of the film deals with troubles that ensue when Nader is forced to hire a stranger—a very orthodox working-class woman with a hot-headed husband—to take care of his father in Simin’s absence.

Having emphasized the crackling energy and relentless distress of A Separation, let me add that in many ways it resembles any number of quiet, talky films by the Swiss auteur Eric Rohmer. In the first place, two children are near the center of the plot. And much of the second half of the film focuses on whether or not people are telling the truth—one of Rohmer’s favorite themes. (Remember Pauline at the Beach?) We in the audience are not quite sure who’s on the level as a court inquiry into an incident at the apartment mushrooms out of control, but Termeh also wants to know if her parents are lying, and if so, why? An even younger girl, the daughter of the family’s newly-hired female attendant, also stirs the pot by guilelessly offering a few timely revelations, without giving it much thought.

Whether A Separation is a truly great film is a question we can leave for others to decide. It’s certainly a griping one, though largely devoid of humor or romance. It’s a drama of bad communication and bad luck, pride and desperation. Anyone who cared to could easily find parallels to the current political stand-off between Iran and the United States. But the film also carries a simpler message: for better or worse, Iranians are in many ways just like us.


Anonymous said...

A Separation should be seen as an Iranian movie made under ' Iranian circumstances' as Simin would have put it. So, do not be surprised if you read below how most Iranians woud interpret hidden metaphors in the movie.

In the opening scene, Nader says he does not want to leave Iran for many reasons and when challenged by Simin to name one, he mentions his father's need for care and sympathy in the state he is in. To Simin this seems like an excuse. Nader, a man whose honesty and integrity is confirmed, should be seeking a better future for his family in the West, rather than stay behind, helping a father whose situation is hopeless because of Alzheimer's. Then, as the argument builds up, we finally hear loud and clear the ‘Two World Views' :
Simin (Modern, pragmatic)- Does your father any longer know you are his son?
Nader (Patriotic, principled)- But I know he is my father!
The sick father, who no longer knows him but needs his love, his care and his protection so dearly and cannot be left behind in such a state, is of course IRAN! And of course, responsibility always falls on the side who knows.
This interpretation is confirmed when Nader accuses Simin, in a later scene, that she has always been weak and tried to escape when conditions get tough, whereas one has to stand up and face the challenges ahead,.............economic sanctions or worse!

Macaroni said...

Thanks for the comment. Such thoughts definitely flashed through my mind, and especially during the very speech you mention in which Nader reproaches Simin for her weakness.

That having been granted, I think the film works much better as a human drama than a political allegory. I would hope that many Iranians would be insulted by a representation of their country as a more-or-less mindless automaton without memory or speech that needs to be cared for like a baby. A better allegory would be of a man in a coma that needs to be revived and returned to health and vigor.

In any case, I find such interpretations more conventional and generic, hence less interesting, than the human drama, which is very real and strongly portrayed all around. I found the film to be difficult to watch but entirely absorbing. It's one that can be discussed at length on several levels. Thanks for further highlighting one of them!