Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Review: "A Separation"

"A Separation" continually surprises and astonishes with its depth and authenticity. This drama about two families caught in a legal and moral conflict that threatens to destabilize both clans just won the Oscar for best foreign language film, and deserved to.

Because this is an Iranian film, it adds an extra layer of context to the travails. Our two nations have grown used to accusing each other of wildly malicious intentions, some valid and some fabricated. After more than 30 years of this, we've become accustomed to thinking of the other people as exotic and unreasonable.

The film, written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, is entirely apolitical in message and theme. Its conflict is between families, and between the personalities within those families. It is a tale of relationships grown frayed, of affection that has been misplaced but not forgotten.

As the story opens, Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are divorcing after 14 years of marriage. Simin wants to leave Iran for reasons that are vague, but mostly having to do with finding a better life for their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). The child refuses to leave her father's side, and Nader seems to think his wife is bluffing about breaking up their family.

Complicating things is Nader's father (Ali-Asghar Shabazi), who is elderly and in the end stages of Alzheimer's. Suddenly a single parent, Nader must hire someone to look after his dad. Simin uses her contacts to find Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a lower-class woman with a young daughter.

Razieh is not comfortable with the job -- the commute is long, the pay is low, and her religious beliefs put her in a quandary about changing the old man out of his clothes after he has soiled himself. After one day, she tells Nader she must quit.

But then she has an idea: her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) is an unemployed cobbler. Nader meets briefly with the man and agrees to hire him. But the next day Razieh shows up again, explaining that Hodjat has been put in jail by his creditors. Despite her reservations, she agrees to keep coming until her husband can work.

Then something happens. At first it seems fairly innocuous -- an argument, a push out the door. Nader can hardly believe when he is arrested and charged with a very serious crime. Soon Simin and Termeh are embroiled in the case.

What is most genuine about Farhadi's tale is his refusal to portray anyone as a villain. Even Hodjat, who is hot-tempered and at some point in the past beat his wife, is portrayed as a man devoted to his family. Razieh struggles to balance the needs of her situation, her spouse and her faith.

Nader is a good and decent man, and proud -- too proud. He refuses to seek reconciliation with Hodjat and Razieh because he is convinced he has done nothing wrong. Even after he compromises the principles he has worked so hard to instill in his daughter, Nader thinks of himself as the good guy.

Hardest to peg is Simin. In her own way she is as vainglorious as Nader; we sense that if he were to ask her to return to him, she would. But she needs to feel needed. She finds herself getting more and more involved in Nader's legal troubles than an ex-wife ought to.

I was intrigued by the depiction of the legal system in Iran, where the aggrieved parties are shut in a small room with a judge/interrogator. Lacking lawyers, they argue and bicker while the judge attempts to puzzle out the pieces. The women even seek each other out between hearings to try to find a solution.

Adherents to our American jurisprudence structure might be appalled, but I can't help thinking their way boasts some benefits our system lacks. At least when people can confront their accuser, there is a chance to see how your antagonist thinks and feels.

"A Separation" is a bold and gripping portrait of the ways in which we come together, and how we isolate one another.

3.5 stars out of four

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