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Vol. 11, No. 3, 2012
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Robert J. Lewis
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When We Leave
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Presumed Guilty

Asghar Farhadi's

Asghar Farhadi

reviewed by


A Separation played at Montreal's 2011 Festival du Nouveau Cinéma (FNC) film festival . For ratings and reviews, click HERE.

The eagerness with which Asghar Farhadi's A Separation has been received and celebrated in Canada and the United States might say as much about Canadian and American, at this point, as it does about A Separation. As American war drums begin to beat again, here arrives an Iranian film that testifies A Separation by Asghar Farhadinot to the oppression of free expression -- see Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, shot illegally and smuggled out of Iran while the filmmaker was under house arrest -- but the triumph of expression in a culture often considered hostile to it. How deep this hostility runs with respect to A Separation is also worth considering, since any country’s official Oscar entry, particularly one with Iran’s censorship history, is calculated to say some very specific things about it. But it’s worth thinking about why Canadian and American media have so aggressively lauded it. The rhetoric and heartrending story behind This Is Not a Film seems a better fit for the official narrative about Iran currently being promulgated by the US propaganda machine.

As an American who has lived abroad for three years now, it’s been a bittersweet privilege to hear the pitch of A Separation’s popularity rise alongside my government’s call for war. From a positive perspective, it’s as if the former has been undertaken, by people who have had enough of senseless slaughter, to muffle the latter. One need only have watched Farhadi’s Oscar acceptance speech, the latest to double as a plea for cultural understanding, to solidify the equivalency. Ten years ago, Michael Moore was half-booed off the Oscar stage for equating the coming foolhardy endeavour in Iraq with a trip down the “rabbit hole.” Now, Farhadi’s soft-spoken tribute to Iran’s rich cultural legacy, absent geopolitical cant or direct critique in either official direction, was lapped up by an audience worn down by a decade that has borne out Moore’s warning. It was the same eagerness with which audiences have welcomed A Separation as sweet proof of common humanity. The bitter element is that a work of great bravery and formal audaciousness like This Is Not a Film is glossed over, because the picture of oppression it offers is perhaps too in line with the picture painted by a government that people no longer trust. The portrait of class and familial conflict in A Separation seems, by comparison, a rather safe and universalizing place in which to invest one’s faith.

What’s shameful about this state of affairs is that This Is Not a Film has much to say about common humanity, about the struggle for clarity amid official distortion, and the triumph of expression in a culture often considered, truly and falsely, hostile to it. In fact, it can teach us a lot about A Separation, even though the two have been framed quite differently in the western media and are seldom, from what I’ve seen, spoken of together. The reasons for this are perhaps as prosaic as the fact that This Is Not a Film looks like a documentary about a particular man in particular circumstances, while A Separation presents itself, and has been presented, as an exquisite fiction whose psychological insights amplify and transcend its cultural specificity. But each film offers something similarly exotic to the casual Eurocentrist, and that’s the ethnographical privilege of watching Iranians of a wealthy class walking around and interacting in modern apartments. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that western audiences have a very different, very general and very distorted picture of Middle East life, and that the combination of headscarves and leather purses is enough to arrest their attention.

Iranian filmmakers with few options for domestic distribution have wisely played this ethnographical angle to appeal to the international festival circuit and the art house crowd. In the past twenty years, much Iranian cinema that has gained international attention has preferred the mundane and the everyday to histrionics and dramatic theatricality. But the ethnographic drive has sometimes bred a more formal theatrics, where the ordinariness and authenticity of what’s onscreen is either emphasized or questioned by egregious filmmaking techniques. Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten underscores the excitement of observing a modern Iranian woman with some literal self-determination by recording, in ten long takes, conversations between her and her passengers as they drive around an Iranian city. This Is Not a Film’s final minutes see someone who might be Panahi take up his camera and leave his apartment, violating his filmmaking ban and house arrest, and casting doubt on the claustrophobia and frustration that came before. But what remains when the authenticity of all else is in question is Panahi’s living space, a picture of middle to upper-middle class domesticity -- complete with Macbook, widescreen television and DVD racks in the living room -- which is eminently familiar to the film’s target audience in the west. A pet lizard adds a splash of personal idiosyncrasy that only teases at disrupting the familiar furniture, and a portrait of oppression alien in its severity plays out in the most comfortable and recognizable of havens. It corroborates some of our worst assumptions about Iranian repression without separating us from it.

This lack of separation takes on a unique importance when considered against the propaganda of governments, especially our own, which always aims at casting a separation between us and them, good and evil. This Is Not a Film criticizes that evil while making it feel very close to home. In its nondescript picture of an upper class male trapped by forces he cannot see or countermand is an opportunity to reflect on our own situation, where the steady erosion of civil liberties has meant the steady growth of a power that is as dangerous as it is difficult to see. Panahi’s film allows us to return to ourselves and our own struggles by looking very closely at another’s. But it also refuses to conflate the two, or to indulge in rosy-tinted universalizing whose necessary denial of the harsher realities that separate peoples and cultures is another way to separate oneself from the real world.

This has been part of my hesitation in approaching A Separation. It is the same hesitation that I feel before any foreign film that is lauded as some kind of miraculous proof that the country in question can, in fact, produce something of universal appeal, which means something that western, primarily American distributors see as palatable or inoffensive enough to market. Critics and newspapers perpetuate this inoffensiveness by affixing a term like masterpiece, which only stops conversation and disguises idiosyncrasies and excesses, both of which become more apparent as time passes and the rhetorical cloud around a new film dissipates. But the problem with this state of affairs is that it tends less to obscure a film’s limitations than its strengths, leaving only banalities and platitudes with which to think and speak about it. Looking at a film like A Separation against another like This Is Not a Film can help cut through jargon, in the same way that Panahi’s film lets us approach the topic of repression in a different light.

The Canadian trailer for A Separation begins with a married couple speaking to an unseen arbiter and arguing with one another about, amongst other things, why they should or should not get a divorce. This is a picture of marital trouble instantly relatable to most audiences; its hook becomes the novelty of the prosaic and recognizable transposed to a strange and, for most international audiences, largely unknown culture. In the film, this scene follows the credit sequence, a series of flashes against a black screen -- the inside of a photocopy machine -- as the couple’s identity papers and marriage license are exposed to the audience. The characters are introduced first through their official identity, next through their physical one, and all of the interpersonal struggles to follow are bracketed and, in many ways, influenced by the pressures these official, public definitions force upon their private behaviours.

This first separation ripples out in all directions, as the film explores the forms of divisiveness that afflict a family and a culture. In fact, the film begins and ends with separations, but in each case it is not the one that the film’s trailer would lead us to believe. The married couple we see in the beginning is beyond reconciliation. The woman, Simin, wants to take her daughter out of the ‘situation’ in Iran, and needs her husband’s permission to do so; the man, Nader, refuses permission, as he must stay to care for his Alzheimer-ridden father, and would not let his daughter go without going with her. Refused a divorce, Simin moves out of the family’s spacious apartment to be with her mother, and Nader hires a pregnant, lower class woman named Razieh to be his father’s daytime caretaker when he’s not at home. Nader returns one day to find his father tied to a bedpost and Razieh gone. What happens next is the subject of much deliberation among A Separation’s characters, but the result is that Razieh lands in the hospital with a miscarriage, Nader is accused of murder (pushing her down the stairs, specifically), the family splits further apart as each parent, to some extent, uses their adolescent daughter Termeh as a chess piece, and everyone involved -- including Razieh’s husband Hodjat, an unemployed cobbler with a temper -- are thrown into the Iranian legal system, whose speed and lack of pomp are refreshingly alternative to the over-inflated arduousness of western legal proceedings but also frighteningly hurried and ham-fisted.

All this is handled with an admirable attention to character psychology and scripted with the tightness of a well-made play. But it’s when the flash of its admittedly virtuosic craft fades that A Separation’s truly interesting qualities begin to emerge. Perhaps because of its commitment to presenting itself as a something of a universal and internationally-marketable entertainment, A Separation is careful not to overindulge in regional or ethnic issues even as it offers glimpses -- through its peaks into the Iranian legal system, for instance -- of cultural difference. The deleterious situation to which Simin refers in the beginning is never mentioned again -- “What is this ‘situation’ you refer to,” asks the arbiter -- because the real source of the couple’s impasse is the shifting power dynamic between genders (stressed by the affectation of Simin’s not-quite-believably red hair peaking from under her scarf) that the film acknowledges as a product of changing times without exploring either the cause of these changes or the mechanisms by which the old order was rammed into place. As the opening credits and the following scene assume, there is a separation between official and private identities, and to live in modern Iran is to find oneself perpetually trying to reconcile the two. A Separation does a terrific job demonstrating how destructive this process can be on an interpersonal level, but it is careful not to make its investigation broader or more specific than that.

Instead it takes up the issue of class separation, but primarily to spur dramatic development. Razieh and Hodjat are complex characters who are tragic because they occupy a lower station, with all the hardships that implies. But they are more tragic because their suffering illustrates the moral failings of the upper class characters. They are a human canvas on which the outcomes and severity of those failings can be registered. The final revelation of the cause of Razieh’s miscarriage -- and the ensuing ruin it causes Hodjat -- is brought on by Nader’s stubborn refusal to admit any wrongdoing. This is a stubbornness behind which A Separation sees the frantic grasps of a sex trying to hold onto a power that it feels it’s losing but that, in ways the film acknowledges and probably skirts, it still possesses. But the analysis of how class and personal failings transmit to real suffering is represented as entirely interpersonal, the business between two families, with no attempt at a systemic analysis beyond some scenes in a crowded judge’s office. Here, however, the office is largely a stage on which the interfamilial conflict can play out, the judge a conduit for introducing problems and demands that spur the conflict along.

Class is an issue primarily because the film must find a moral justification for its interest in the aesthetics of the upper class. As in This Is Not a Film, the living space of the wealthy becomes an arena in which the psychological health of the characters can be put on display. Where the spaciousness of Panahi’s apartment was both a reprieve from claustrophobia and a chasm into which he could easily disappear, A Separation’s apartment is spacious and claustrophobic, large enough to accommodate a family but small enough, and spaced in such a way, that each character is visible to the other even when they are in different rooms. The repressive pressure that was Panahi’s burden came from an outside force into his private life; in A Separation, the private life is the pressing force, with each character navigating around and pressuring the psychology of the others. For each character, and especially for Nader, the unaffected and hasty judge who makes life and death decisions is less imposing than the stare of a wife or a daughter. The former is known (after briefly invisible in the post-credits scene), the latter as unknowable as the force outside Panahi’s window.

The question of what is known and unknown ties the family together and pulls it apart, from Nader’s father who is coming out of knowledge to his daughter who is coming into it. This question also superficially drives the narrative, as everyone forms their own idea of what the truth of the miscarriage, or of what one’s response to it, ought to be. But it’s the focus on familial and self-knowledge that leaves an impression as the film’s great strength and limitation. This Is Not a Film shows us another person’s struggle for self-expression, in part, to turn us back to ourselves. A Separation projects the struggle for self-knowledge onto the drama, and leaves the viewer with little to think about beyond how skillfully it has done so. In the final minutes, this drama jettisons Razieh and Hodjat and focuses exclusively on the family, observing that all this interpersonal messiness has completed the couple’s parting and, in making the daughter choose between them, her own parting from the ideals of parents, family and a stable life. It’s the pain of separation as coming of age narrative, something anyone from anywhere can relate to.


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