Monday, February 20, 2012

Foreign Disputes: A Separation

With a detached tone that never takes sides, that never relies on a musical score to cue an emotional response, A Separation examines interconnected hopeless situations in a foreign country.

In an opening scene set in a sterile bureaucratic office in a cold justice building, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation plays out its first hopeless situation in a lengthy dispute in front of a legal official. Simin (Leila Hatami), a teacher, wants her family to leave Iran so that her daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), can enjoy better opportunities elsewhere. Her husband, Nader (Peyman Maadi), however, doesn’t want to leave his father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Simin suggests that she and Termeh go without him. After much dispute, Nader says that he is willing to go through a divorce, but if Simin wants to leave the country, she must do so alone. Simin pleads with the official. There is no recourse but to sign her name and leave the office.

Another hopeless situation arises when Nader must hire a housekeeper to take care of his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who needs constant watching. He hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), unaware she is pregnant. More dispute. The economy is poor in Iran, as well, and Razieh argues for more pay, since her commute will be a long one and her ex-con husband, Hodjat (Shabab Hosseini) doesn’t make much as a cobbler. More problems arise when Razieh leaves the old man untended, Nader returns to find his father lying on the floor, and after a lengthy argument full of accusations, he pushes Razieh out of the apartment. When Razieh suffers a miscarriage and loses her child, Nader is accused of murder and sued for “blood money” by Hodjat. This leads to more appearances in barren legal offices where the ensuing disputes reveal that Hodjat suffers from serious anger management issues.

Played skillfully by Maadi, Nader is a man faced with a mess. He is suddenly single. He must go to work to pay the bills. His father needs care. His housekeeper accuses him of pushing her down the stairs. His housekeeper’s husband wants to bash his head in. If only he hadn’t lost his temper and pushed Razieh out the door. If only his wife hadn’t left him. Because Simin leaves, a chain of events unleashes conflicting needs that get tangled up together. Nader needs to care for his father. Razieh needs money so that her husband can pay his creditors and stay out of jail. Simin needs to take her daughter away from Iran.

In the middle of this mess is Simin and Nader’s eleven-year-old daughter, Termeh. She must appear in the legal office to answer questions about the argument in the apartment. She must later decide between living with her mother or her father. Throughout the turmoil, she loves her mother, but she sympathizes with her father. It is clear that she will even lie to help alleviate his burden. Her turmoil is the film’s very spare emotional core. We experience a touching moment when she watches her father care lovingly for her decrepit grandfather, but throughout the film, touching moments are scarce, and the extent of Termeh's emotional display is a streak of tears down her cheek.

Always toneless, the film evokes a drab, emotionless foreignness that subtly builds a smothering oppression. People in trouble with the law wait in the crowded hallways of cold legal buildings. Hodjat’s creditors have a stake in whether or not Nader will assume responsibility for the miscarriage and pay a price, and they lurk like vultures over the outcome of the dispute. In order to be able to change an old man’s soiled pajamas, Razieh must call a religious official to make sure it will not be considered a sin to touch a naked man who is not her husband. This kind of thing, and much more, must constitute Simin’s motivations for her staunch determination to leave Iran with her daughter. In Iran, swearing on the Quran seems to be a legitimate way to prove one is telling the truth, and it is also a device that can be used to force a resolution.

Admirable for its acting, its effective close-up camerawork, and its interesting look into the lives of others in an alien land, A Separation presents interesting conflicts, but it is hard to get absorbed by them. Sometimes, the film is as drab as its drab, uninteresting settings. Sometimes, the hopeless disputes that make up its conflicts drone on too long. The subtitles are there. You can read them and follow what everyone is talking about, but like a foreigner who doesn’t know the language spoken by everyone around him, you find yourself wishing everyone would shut up for a while. Perhaps this is director Farhadi’s intent: to depict the hopelessness of human beings at cross purposes. Whatever the case, A Separation plays out compelling human conflicts in a strangely uncompelling way.

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