Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Love: A Separation

Nobody wins in A Separation.  It is a film where a minor fracture can become a black hole vacuum, where everyone seeks a justice that will best serve them, and where white lies conspire with vague assertions to obscure the motives of each and every party.  Yet, while our characters are liars, while the accusations they make are dangerously detrimental, the twist here is that they are essentially good.  A Separation begins with the seeds of a divorce and grows into an invasive species, a weed that kills off the happily planted flowers in their neat little rows. The film hails from Iran and is, notably, the first ever Farsi language work to earn a nomination in the original screenplay category.  It deserves it.  Though steeped in a culture largely alien to the average American, the moral questions at play in A Separation could just as easily have arisen out of the Midwestern heartland or a Los Angeles apartment complex. While the woman wrap their hair in hijabs and fret over potential sins, each character is caught in a complicated battle to maintain their own standards of living. Small, in-the-moment decisions become the wrong ones, and even the youngest of characters are forced to challenge everything they've been taught.
As mentioned, A Separation opens upon a husband and wife sitting before an off-screen judge.  They're middle class and educated, Simin (Leila Hatami) desperately wants to leave Iran and give their preteen daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) a shot at a better life.  Her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi), however, is unwilling to desert his aging father, a man slowly wasting away in the throes of Alzheimer's. With the divorce unfinalized, Simin moves in with her parents, leaving Nader in their family home desperately trying to juggle the disparate needs of his father and daughter.  He hires a caregiver in the form of a fundamentalist woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayet).  Beneath the folds of all those layers of fabric, she is pregnant, a fact that is not immediately realized by anyone.  Razieh's belief system is a strict one, and she's clearly of lower class.  She needs the money, but lies to her out-of-work husband (Shahab Hosseini) about her whereabouts, knowing that he would not approve of the fact that she's working for a pair of men without the presence of a supervising female. Nader is aggressively protective of his father and, when he comes home to find Razieh has made an error he finds inexcusable, their argument escalates, their daughters each bearing witness.  A throwaway gesture becomes the stuff of tragedy as the situation spirals out of domesticity and into the complicated bureaucracy of the court.
A Separation is a title at first misleading and then transcendent. It contains multitudes, appropriate for nearly every character we meet on-screen.  The divorce is merely the beginning. From there, men and women are torn from each other, torn from the basic nature of their beliefs, stripped of their sanity, robbed of their futures, and very much in danger of throwing away everything they've worked to achieve.  What's created here is a conversation, a push/pull triggered in our own psyches in which we too experience the conflicted strains between what our head tells us and what our gut believes.  Director Asghar Farhadi guides us through the moral wasteland with a sure hand, pulling us through what would otherwise be depressing fare with a hypnotist's eye. Though the mechanics of the film work to offer overseas audiences a questioning, every so slightly subversive glimpse into a culture where justice is rooted in unrealistic religious convictions, Farhadi makes sure we understand it at a human level.  Sure, we learn something of the way things work in Iran.  But, honestly, that's not what's at stake here.  When we watch A Separation we can choose our perspective, we do not feel emotionally manipulated or forced into a specific way of seeing.  We are mere observers forced to watch as average people transform into mild-mannered monsters.  

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