Finally, I saw A Separation, the Iranian film which has generated so much praise and which is up for an Oscar in several categories. I say finally because I have been waiting for it since I first heard about it from friends in Paris, in July.
A Separation is a remarkable film, one of the best Iranian films to grace our screens, perhaps one of the very best films ever so skilled its narrative, so delicate its weave, so authentic its characters. Yeah, yeah, everyone says its themes are “universal” but, really, that’s often another way of saying that it is not too “Iranian, ‘ya know.” It is set in contemporary, post-Islamic Revolution Iran; its characters speak an often loud Persian; and their drama is intertwined with law, religion, class, but most of all with the day-to-day hassle of living, of taking care of aging parents, keeping a job or creditors off the door, being a good parent–and doing all this while trying to adhere to the tenets of Islam.
Without qualifications, without relativizing everything to death, and with a touch as light as a feather, the director of A Separation, Asghar Farhadi, asks, What is the truth at the heart of this family/courtroom drama? And who decides? The courts? The extended family? The two young girls who are at once observers and participants? The adults? Or the audience?
More: What demands does the truth place on the parents, on the children? And which is more important, to tell the truth and risk the complete rupture of the family or to circumvent it, deflect it, for the sake of the young and the very old? A film populated by more than half a dozen memorable characters, each beautifully portrayed, A Separation is a high-wire act, with plenty of close-ups, each scene building on the previous one with ferocious energy and skill.
A Separation twists and turns from one scene to the next, revealing complex characters against the backdrop of class, family, religion, law, and private desire. It is also a grand narrative of generational continuity and tension, where the young are clearly and unequivocally foregrounded in a way which Iranian–and also French– movies are so skilled at doing. In this respect, they put to shame American movies where children and young adults are treated either as shrunken growups or silly little brats.
It is, in the end, the 11-year old Termeh who asks the defining question of her father. It is also she who has to make the final decision which will no doubt define her life in ways neither she nor we can imagine. (The end is strangely reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s Caché, with which A Separation shares some uncanny similarities.)
But A Separation does not take the easy way out by suggesting that the truth is completely subjective and relative. What it does instead is show the ways in which the truth is interwoven with the larger issues and contexts of family, of society, of religious faith, of the educational system. Withholding judgment on any of his characters, rendering them as individuals, Farhadi emphasizes the threads and bonds between and among individuals, from the neighbors to the in-laws to the tutors. For viewers tired of watching the diminished lives and internalized dramas which have become the staple of so many of our movies, A Separation offers a large-scale display of an entire society–contentious, young, its revolution still evolving. It asks the big questions; and it does so with an effortlessness that often takes the breath away.