Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Separation Movie Review: Best Movie of 2011

Newton’s Third Law of Motion tells us that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton was referring to the physical world, but it would seem that something similar is at work in the metaphysical world as well. For every action we take as individuals, even when it’s a personal and private action that seems to only affect ourselves, somewhere someone else receives some reaction to it. Maybe that’s true. I really don’t know. But the idea that lives are intertwined with neighbors and family, that decisions have far-reaching implications beyond immediate gratification is the central theme of Asghar Farhadi’s brilliant family drama A Separation.

I was not particularly fond of Farhadi’s last film, About Elly, but now that I’ve seen the full extent of the subjects he’s interested in presented in a film this powerful and absorbing, I understand the previous film a little more. The separation of the title immediately refers to the marriage between Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami). She is asking for a divorce because they have already gone through the extensive process of procuring a visa to live in another country, they have forty days before it expires, and he’s refusing to leave Iran because his father, stricken with Alzheimer’s, needs constant care. Simin is not content to raise their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh, in a country where she has no future.

Farhadi places his camera in the objective position of the state official they’ve brought their case to. Neither party is placed in a more favorable light. We can sympathize with both positions. Nader and Simin are each right and they are each wrong. This scene with its shades of gray sets up the difficult reality of decisions and consequences featured in the story. How is truth decided when each person has their own take on a particular situation? How is justice meted out with regard to truths that should be objective but are so often found to be subjective? And when justice for one party means injustice for the other, what is the fair decision? Life is not lived on one side or the other, but rather somewhere on a spectrum between just and unjust, right and wrong. Farhadi’s intricately woven and complex screenplay understands this instinctively.

Simin moves out of the house, leaving Termeh with Nader, who refuses to give his permission for her to go. Her moving out has a deeper motivation in her desire for Nader to simply express his wish that she stay. Because Simin is no longer around to look after Nader’s father, he is forced to hire a woman to come every day. This sets up the central conflict. He hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who is 4 months pregnant, has a husband out of work, and brings her 4-year-old daughter with her. She is rather unprepared for the task of looking after an elderly man who sometimes can’t make it to the bathroom. Coming from a standpoint that finds religious fundamentalism completely bizarre, I can’t help but feel disturbed by a culture that causes a woman to call a religious counselor to ask if it’s a sin for her to undress and clean a man who has wet himself.

On about the third day of work, Nader comes home to find the house locked and his father on the bedside floor with his hand tied to the bed post. He is justifiably angry when Razieh returns claiming she had to run some errands. He also discovers some missing money and makes an accusation demanding she leave immediately. Razieh is concerned with honor and justice and so refuses to go until he retracts his accusation. Nader shoves her out the door, perhaps a little more forcefully than he should have especially considering her condition. Later he learns she’s in the hospital and has lost her baby. She and her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) file charges of murder against him and so witnesses are brought in and angry accusations are hurled back and forth.

The issue is whether or not Nader knew she was pregnant. There is reason to suspect he did, but equally strong evidence to believe he didn’t. If he sits in jail awaiting bail, then there’s no one to look after his father. If he’s found guilty he could go to prison for one to three years, and who knows what consequences there would be for his daughter? If he pays blood money to Razieh and Hodjat, who has debts that make some of his motivations suspect, then justice has not been served because he will be admitting guilt unjustifiably. Hodjat feels he deserves justice for the loss of his unborn child. If he doesn’t receive compensation, his family will be ruined.

Farhadi’s screenplay looks at this problem from various angles even though the protagonists are Nader and his family. There is no resolution that has everyone coming out the other end better or feeling like justice has been served. Razieh is in many ways the most interesting character because she claims she was pushed hard enough to fall down the stairs, but the physical layout of the door and staircase would suggest the impossibility of such a fall. Is she lying? To what end? The only fact in the case is that she lost her baby. Is she concealing something?

This is undoubtedly one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. I’m continually finding that the most interesting films are coming out of other countries, where film makers have great storytelling skills and have learned the craft of movie making without the formulas found in studio films. Farhadi writes his characters not as heroes and villains in an extraordinary circumstance, but as ordinary people dealing with the realities of life. The four adults at the center of the story are generally decent people (although an argument can be made for Hodjat being the least sympathetic with his outbursts of anger) who have decisions to make with far-reaching consequences. This is the stuff of life. And everything can be tied back to the separation begun in the first scene, a decision that sets in motion a chain reaction that leads to an altercation and the loss of a baby. But we know it’s not fair to blame it all on Simin, even if Nader implicates her at one point. She made what she thought was the best decision at the time, as we all try to do.

The final scene of the film is of Termeh called forth to announce her decision about which parent she chooses to live with. The scene is drawn out to create tension, but ultimately Farhadi doesn’t go for any simple conclusion. The shot that closes the film is a perfect summation of the divide between Nader and Simin and the fact that no life-altering decision is easy or necessarily right.

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