A Separation (2011)
(a.k.a. Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)
Seen at: BAM Rose Cinemas
Who: Asghar Farhadi (d), Leila Hatam, Peyman Moad, Shahab Hossein, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhad, Ali-Asghar Shahbaz
Baggage: First viewing. It hadn’t won the Oscar™ yet when I started writing this.
Bias: It’s thinky and talky and hearty and smart, so I’m all over it from the get-go.
Through the years I’ve defended Crash against its traducers - and here I mean the Paul Haggis Oscar™-winning star-studded mish-mash movie on racism, and not the insane and discomfortable David Cronenberg picture of the same name. Crash had a fairly high ratio of foot to mouth, but it worked on its own terms, and its strong points were so very strong that I forgave it some trespasses. (Whether it should have won Best Picture over the other contenders, which included Brokeback Mountain, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Capote, is another story for a different conversation.)
A Separation does not follow the same worlds-of-worlds structure that drew the many circles of L.A. into a single-issue pot, but it reminds me of Crash in the way its story moves from hand to hand, without intent and with magnifying force. It opens with Simin (Hatam) and her husband Nader (Moad) arguing a case for divorce before a judge in Iran, staring down the camera as they present their arguments (we has met the Judge, and He is Us, as Pogo might say). Simin wants to leave the country with their daughter, Termeh (Farhadi); Nader won’t leave his elderly father, who is bedridden and afflicted with Alzheimer’s. He is willing to let Simin leave on her own; she, in turn, will not leave their daughter Termeh behind, and Termeh has chosen to stay with her father.
Thus, and deftly, writer and director Farhadi binds the first of his characters into a geometry of dependency and obligation.
Simin moves out, but does not leave Iran; once she is gone, Nader must hire someone to care for his sick father. Razieh (Bayat), a taciturn woman with a long commute to reach the city, takes on the housekeeping position, but after the elder gentleman soils himself on her first day of work, she declines to continue at the job for religious reasons. But perhaps her husband Hodjat (Hosseini) might take the job? They have creditors, and he needs the work. When he doesn’t show, Razieh returns in his place. Things go awry, poor choices are made, and the rest of the story bursts out abruptly with all the annihilating force of a wave raging across an island.
But where Crash insists on the virtue of pounding us over the head with giant, cartoony ironies dressed in subtle shades of nuanced acting, A Separation delivers sympathetic and intractable whole characters, people rather than propositions. This makes the ensuing tragedies far more troubling, as they are drawn in clear, realistic shades of gray. The separation of the title is both Simin’s departure from the family home, which starts the whole ball of wax melting, and the gulf that makes us all craggy, lonely, insistent individuals. Perhaps in unity there might be peace; in division, there are a thousand sides to every story.
There’s a tendency for our actors to inhabit movie roles the way professional wrestlers inhabit their costumes: bulging out of them, and flexing their oiled, tanned, and buffed stretches of excess. Mr. Farhadi’s actors are so snug in their parts that belief isn’t just suspended. It’s lifted off and packed away, leaving behind the naked play of people at their bests, and worsts.
As the film closes, one of the characters is asked to make a difficult decision. I found myself balled up in my seat, suddenly hoping that the film wouldn’t collapse in its final seconds into a happy-rainbow luvvy ending. I needn’t have worried - the camera lingers, dwelling on the spaces and hearts that keep us apart. There is expectation, and worry, and hope, and fear. Two people stare into middle distance, knowing that their futures are dashing apart into sand. It’s not that they are too proud to reach to each other; they just don’t know how.