French director Jean Renoir has a bold statement in his 1939 film “The Rules of the Game,” and it goes: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” That same principle holds true some 70 years later when transposed to present-day Iran in Asghar Farhadi’s spectacularly scripted and handsomely rewarded Oscar winner, “A Separation.”
I will be the first to admit that many of the films I’ve highlighted in this column have been esoteric even by movie lovers’ standards. “A Separation” is not such a movie. If you bother to watch even one movie I’ve written about in the past year, this is the one. It’s timely, it’s easy to follow (so long as your subtitle reading is up to par) and it packs a hefty emotional wallop unlike anything else you’ll likely get from films currently playing in theaters.
“A Separation,” like many of Farhadi’s films, is built around a moral dilemma without a simple solution. The film opens in a divorce office, where Simin (Leila Hatami) and her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi), are in the midst of pleading their respective cases to an offscreen judge. Simin wants to leave Iran to give their 11-year-old daughter a chance at a better and safer life, and while Nader shares her wishes, he also insists that the family must stay put longer so he can continue to care and provide for his aging father who is currently in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. This first shot positions the viewer in the place of the divorce judge with Simin and Nader seated side-by-side pleading their cases to the audience. Farhadi’s intention is clear — we’re the ones meant to figure out who to support in this tangled web of responsibility.
There’s no easy solution to Simin and Nader’s drama to begin with, but when Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a woman of a lower class and much stronger religious convictions, to clean the house and look after his father during the day, the story takes a left turn into an even deeper swamp. Nader’s frustration with his wife leads him to blow a fuse one day with Razieh, who makes a threatening accusation against him that ends up embroiling their families in a boiling-hot conflict with seemingly no resolution.
The apparent cause of the film’s many moral quandaries is the lack of villains to blame. Whereas conflicts in other films can usually be reduced to a black-and-white vision of the wronged and the wrongdoers, the problems that arise between characters in Farhadi’s universe occupy a gray space where the distinctions between good and evil are nonexistent. Here, everyone’s motives are admirable, but the results of acting on them in the face of everyone else’s motives are lamentable. Farhadi has commented on the nature of his melodrama with an aphorism that echoes Renoir’s own observation about human nature, “Classical tragedy was the war between good and evil. We wanted evil to be defeated and good to be victorious. But the battle in modern tragedy is between good and good. And no matter which side wins, we’ll still be heartbroken.”
If you think the film as I’ve described it so far sounds like a train wreck waiting to happen, you’d be right, but it’s the variety of train wreck from which it’s impossible to tear your eyes away. Several factors contribute the film’s imminent watchability, first and foremost being Farhadi’s storytelling. Not a second of the film’s two hours goes to waste, with every scene adding a new layer of complexity to the characters and their situations. We learn more about the class differences separating Simin and Nader from Razieh and her husband, as well as how the former’s more liberal political and religious preferences play a role in the ensuing conflict between the families. In addition to fully realized characterizations of the actors in this drama, Farhadi’s screenplay boasts an expert pileup of tiny details introduced without fanfare early on in the story only to return with a vengeance as the plot thickens.
Of equal importance to the film’s success is the ensemble cast’s mesmerizing work. I say this not in the sense of a film critic strapped for attention-grabbing language, but in the sense of a moviegoer who was transfixed by Farhadi’s characters the first time I saw the film in theaters (trapped in the front row, no less), and even upon subsequent viewings. Hatami, Moadi and Bayat so fully inhabit their characters that it becomes impossible to separate performance from reality. Nothing rings false about the way these people behave given their circumstances, and consequently we end up projecting our own lives onto the drama portrayed onscreen.
Which is entirely the point of Farhadi’s game. “A Separation” works equally effectively on macrocosmic and microcosmic levels — as a parable about the world’s misunderstanding of Iran and its people in the 21st century and as a mirror reflecting the misunderstandings and miscommunications that arise in our own communities on a daily basis. Farhadi doesn’t give his viewers a clean and tidy ending, and while this may be frustrating to many, it ultimately hews to reality. Life doesn’t come with credits affixed to the end; there’s always more to the story, whether we make the effort to seek it out or not.
Tim Markatos is a senior in the College. THE CINEMA FILES appears every other Friday.
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