Separation: 2011 Best Foreign Films

 

Iran

Set in contemporary Iran, “A Separation,” the fifth feature by the gifted director Asghar Farhadi, is nominally a drama about the dissolution of one particular marriage.

But, dealing with both cultural and religious barriers and contesting various taboos, “A Separation” goes beyond its specific tale of divorce to achieve a higher level of relevancy and universality

The movie, which is Iran’s official sentry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival, in February. Since then, the movie has been winning critics awards all over the country, including the New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review for Best Foreign Film. The LA Film Critics Association (of which I am a member) has given the film the Best Screenplay, an award that usually goes to an American (or English-speaking) picture.

The estimable Sony Classics will release the film in the end of December.

On the surface, the plot seems rather simple. Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are members of the middle-class, who hold professional jobs.

They appear to live a quiet life, and even their arguments and fights are conducted in a decent, civilized manner. They are also the kinds of people who prefer to resolve their domestic differences in court. In the very first scene, they air their “dirty laundry” in front of a judge.

At first, we get the impression of a couple that comforts itself with courtesy and good manners, because they feel that their own feelings and problems can be resolved. But appearances prove to be deceitful.

Simin wants to leave behind her husband’s Alzheimer-suffering father, a move that would ensure brighter prospects for their offspring. When Nader refuses, Simins files for divorce. Her request having failed, Simin returns to her parents’ home, but Termeh decides to stay with Nader.

Nader then hires a young woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayant), a deeply religious and secretly pregnant woman, to assist with his father in his wife’s absence. There is a revelatory scene, in which Razieh calls a religious hotline to find out whether her professional duties are consistent with her beliefs.

For his part, He hopes that his life will return to a “normal” state. However, when he discovers that the new maid has been lying to him, he realizes that there is more on the line than just his marriage. Razieh’s condition begins to impact her job in a serious way.  Nader, despite his better instincts, allows his inner repression to emerge and express itself, resulting in Razieh’s termination and further courtroom proceedings.

Soon, the entire family is drawn into all kinds of unanticipated feuds. It is to the credit of Farhadi, who also produced and penned the script, that he keeps adding twists and turns, at once playing with and defying audiences’ expectations. He largely succeeds in keeping us guessing by taking a non-judgmental approach toward his characters and their predicaments.

In an interview with the press at the Toronto Film Fest, the director has said that he always perceived “a Separation” as “a detective story without any detectives. The audience is the one in charge of solving the puzzles–there will be as many answers as audiences.”

Indeed, “A Separation is a provocative film that raises timely questions, instead of imposing ideas and answers, questions that go beyond the current living conditions in Iran.

I have seen two of Farhadi’s former features, “Beautiful City” in 2004 and “About Elly” in 2009, and placed in the broader perspective of his career, I think “A Separation” is at once his most ambitious and accomplished work to date.

 

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