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moral questions, everyday choices

dan edwards: asghar farhadi’s a separation


A Separation A Separation
A SEPARATION STARTS WITH A FACT—THE BREAKDOWN OF A MARRIAGE—AND ENDS OVER A NARRATIVE AND PHILOSOPHICAL PRECIPICE. IN BETWEEN IS A DRAMA SO INVOLVING IN ITS UNEXPECTED TWISTS AND TURNS THAT THE SUDDEN CESSATION OF MOVEMENT IN A PROLONGED, OPEN-ENDED FINAL SHOT IS SHATTERING IN ITS EFFECT. THE SILENCE THAT COMES AFTER TWO HOURS OF EMOTIONAL TUMULT LEAVES US PONDERING HOW THINGS GOT TO THIS POINT. WHO WAS RIGHT? WHO WAS WRONG? ARE QUESTIONS LIKE THESE EVEN VALID IN THE FACE OF LIFE’S ENDLESS COMPLICATIONS?

Fittingly, A Separation opens in a divorce court, but the breakup of Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) takes up only a small portion of screen time. For much of the movie it is merely a backdrop to the more pressing concerns that pile up on Nader following his wife’s desertion. But the differences underlying this couple’s conflict ripple out from the opening scene and flow into the myriad subplots, informing the film’s reflections on moral obligation, class, religion and the pressures of Iranian life.

A Separation A Separation
Nader is a man used to being in command. He is proud, a little haughty and lacking in a spirit of compromise. Yet he is also, as his wife admits in the film’s first moments, a deeply committed and honourable person—perhaps too honourable. An unexpected string of events after he is left alone with his ailing father and teenage daughter leads him into a situation where his painstaking concern for integrity could destroy all he holds dear.

Simin is Nader’s mirror image—pragmatic, changeable, indirect. She wants to leave Iran and its “present situation” to give their daughter a better chance at life. Nader accuses her of cowardice and running away from every problem. The pair stand for two ways of living, their outlooks thrown into relief by Nader’s dependent father on the one hand, and the probing, critical eye of their teenage daughter on the other. The needs of the past and the demands of the future weigh heavily on this family and threaten to tear it apart. Yet director Asghar Farhadi’s skilful writing and the constrained, heartfelt performances mean the characters never feel like symbols. They are people with the same spectrum of failings and strengths as all of us, making their trials all the more painful to watch.

A Separation A Separation
Farhadi shoots his rapid-fire story with a nervy, handheld camera that reflects the tensions and conflicted loyalties running between characters. It’s as if the lens itself is afraid that everything we see could slip away at a moment’s notice. This is a deeply anxious film, in which no-one is ever allowed sure footing. For all the emotional charge infusing every frame, however, the drama is surprisingly restrained. Farhadi’s performers convey more depth of feeling in a glance, a gesture, an anxious pace, than many films manage in hours of histrionics.

It’s this ability to wring profound questions about the right way to live from dramas rooted in the earthy interactions of common people that makes much Iranian cinema so affecting. There is no need here for heroics, extraordinary situations, bloody violence or mawkish emotion. There’s certainly no need for grandstanding speeches about our common humanity. In its story and characters, A Separation illuminates the common threads of care, love, stupidity and blindness that bond relations the world over. It subtly traces the profound moral questions that lie beneath the small, prosaic choices we make every day. And finally, it shows that clinging to moral certainties can sometimes wound as deeply as vacillation. We can never live without inflicting some pain on others, no matter how honourable our intentions.

A Separation A Separation
When A Separation won its well-deserved Oscar for Best Foreign Film in February—the first Iranian film to collect an Academy Award—Asghar Farhadi used the opportunity to speak out against those who believe the US and its allies should bomb Iran into salvation. Farhadi’s speech merely put into words what his film had already shown. A Separation asks us to question our own hearts before setting standards for others. Although Farhadi’s is not a world without conflict, it’s one in which empathy might just lead to restraint, and remove the self-righteous glow we so often take on as we do damage to others.


A Separation, director, writer, producer Asghar Farhadi, performers Peyman Moaadi, Leila Hatami, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Iran, 2011, distributed in Australia by Hopscotch Films; http://www.hopscotchfilms.com.au

This article was originally published as part of RT's online e-dition march 20.

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. 19

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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