Film Reviews

The (Not So) People’s Court.

We are witnesses to their stories. A middle-class Iranian couple relays their disputes to a harried judge who must decide whether to grant them a divorce. Simin, the wife, wants one because (she says) her husband, Nader, has promised her they will move from Iran (with their l2-year-old daughter, Termeh). But Nader has decided that he will not, nor will he allow Termeh to go with her mother. (The complication is that he wishes to stay to care for his Alzheimer’s-stricken father, who is pretty far gone.)

The judge considers and renders his decision: No divorce will be granted. Simin then decides to move back in with her parents. Nader and Simin have just hired a devout Muslim woman to help with the father’s caretaking, but religious tradition has it that there should be another woman present in the household for such care. The new hire, Razieh, stays reluctantly but offers her (unemployed) husband in her future stead.

Winner of this year’s Oscar for foreign language film, A Separation burrows deeply and intensely into this situation–its backstory and its disastrous consequences–and involves the whole mix of socio-cultural realities: law, customs and folkways, religion(s), marital inequality, filial devotion and legal system. When the couple separates, the new hire quarrels with Nader, who accuses her of stealing and mistreating the old father.

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, the film moves on from that argument to a series of “honorable” mistakes and to a serious accident, which is catalyzed into a murder charge against one of the principals. We see, mostly through Termeh’s eyes, how each of our characters withholds bits of information, and the truth that arises is a distortion familiar to anyone who has ever participated in such a complicated “domestic” situation.

Each character, and even the truth, is confined in the narrow spaces of inherited belief systems with scarcely enough room, moral and psychological, to breathe properly.

This reality is brilliantly correlated by the cinematography: narrow rooms and passageways, hospital corridors, cramped stairways–everything shut away, cut off, nothing truly contiguous. This technique fuses with the increasingly powerful content in a way practiced only by first-rate filmmakers. We are watching life–sometimes painfully–as it uncoils, and it is absolutely convincing. This is the real thing, and it’s capable of making us uncomfortable at times. A Separation is an unflinching grown-up drama, and requires a sophisticated audience.

The ending of this global hit, dramatizing human universals, is surprising, and it asks for a good deal from the audience. It divides people in the theater deeply, as it should; a rich, troubling drama for those who like the genre.

You know who you are.