It’s interesting to see the parallels between the last two movies awarded the Best Foreign Language Film prize at the Academy Awards, last year’s “In a Better World” and the most recent winner, “A Separation.” Both are very broad, universal tales that provide a richly humanistic exploration of important themes. The former took on revenge, and the latter tackled honesty.
But the wonder of “A Separation” is that it manages to simultaneously tell a rich tale grounded in common experience and one that is distinctly Iranian. By exploring how his culture could very well be a microcosm for the entire world, writer/director Asghar Farhadi probably could not have come at a better moment. In his acceptance speech, he relished the moment as it promoted an image of the country beyond their crazy leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranians battle their society but also themselves, just as we all do; Farhadi remarked, “I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”
Really, that’s the core of his movie, too. All the characters know the way to be a better person, but there are personal and social forces holding them back from doing the right thing. Whether it’s their pride, their zeal, their lifestyle, or their religion, “A Separation” is an excellent chronicle of people consciously missing the mark.
While the titular martial separation of Nader and Simin may seem like the focus of the film, it only provides the backdrop for the real drama. Their divorce provides us with the most vital motivations of each character: Simin wants to get out of Iran with their daughter Termeh and start her family anew in America, but Nader remains committed to fulfill his filial duties to his ailing father. She moves out of his house but not out of his life; Simin refuses to abandon Termeh, who decides to stay with Nader temporarily.
It’s nothing short of fascinating to watch their underlying desires play out amidst a sea change that puts lives and lifestyles at stake. Nader stands to lose a lot as his protective instincts get the best of him, and he winds up hurting his housekeeper Razieh in ways he could never have expected. She herself is caught between fulfilling her duty to her job, to her husband, and to herself. Their issues wind up spilling into a lawsuit that gives a new face to the courtroom drama. Gone is the glamour of the jury and the judge of American classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” replaced in Iran by a middle-aged man sweating behind a desk in what might as well be a coat closet making orders as he pleases.
The movie takes its time in getting to the meat of the conflict, and while I waited, “A Separation” felt a little slight. But once it picked up, I was totally engrossed in the endless complexities that make the lawsuit such a nightmare for every party involved. Farhadi’s script is so wonderfully layered, another jewel in the 2011 crown of originality. He does with ease what others struggle to achieve: a naturalistic portrayal of flawed human beings torn asunder by their own wills. B+ /