A Separation

  • Year:2011
  • Rating:PG
  • Director:Asghar Farhadi
  • Cast:Sareh Bayat, Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi
  • Release Date:March 01, 2012
  • Distributor:Hopscotch
  • Running time:123 minutes
  • Film Worth:$19.50
  • FILMINK rates movies out of $20 - the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

While it’s a deceptively simple screenplay, this evolves into powerfully resonant and morally complex stuff, and announces director Asghar Farhadi as an immense talent.

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Even if you don't know much about Iranian cinema, chances are that you're aware of A Separation by now. Asghar Farhadi's drama about a legal conflict between two families (one middle class, the other poor) in contemporary Tehran has become something of a phenomenon. Premiering at The Berlin Film Festival a year ago, it swept all major awards, including The Golden Bear; since then, it's circled the globe, dazzling critics and audiences alike, and racking up one accolade after another - including The Sydney Film Festival Prize. It's sold millions of tickets in Europe and the US, and was even a huge box office hit at home in Iran, where the influential arthouse films acclaimed by cinephiles tend to fare poorly. In January, after winning a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film, A Separation was nominated for two Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Film, taking out the latter. Along the way, it has increased world attention on Iranian cinema, even as the Islamic Republic's regime has provoked outrage with its persecution of filmmakers.

On the eve of its commercial run here in Australia, you might wonder whether this film lives up to its billing as a masterpiece. The answer is, well, pretty much. A Separation is a work of remarkable power and vision contained within a simple story that resonates across cultural boundaries. It should attract (and deserves) a large following; whereas the restless experimentation of Iranian masters like Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami might leave general audiences puzzled, Farhadi's film strikes a more universal chord without compromising artistically at all. "Family drama", the film's most overused descriptor, doesn't do justice to the suspense and wrenching emotion forged by Farhadi with minimal plot elements; his pinpoint control of storytelling, and the cinematic skill with which he achieves it, are worthy of Hitchcock himself.

Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a middle class couple seeking an amicable divorce. Simin wants to move to Germany so their adolescent daughter, Termeh (played by Farhadi's own daughter, Sarina), can have a good education; Nader refuses to leave his father, who suffers from Alzheimer's. In a bravura extended opening shot in which the two face the camera and present their arguments to an unseen judge, we sense that they genuinely love each other, but that there is an unhealthy lack of trust. When Simin moves back to her parents' place, taking Termeh with her, Nader is obliged to hire a caregiver for the old man. Razieh (Sareh Bayat) is a poor and devoutly religious woman who takes the job without permission from her headstrong husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), a risky proposition that only adds to her discomfort in the comparatively liberal and secular household. Complicating matters further, she can't afford a babysitter for her young daughter, and (unknown to Nader) she's pregnant. When Nader comes home from work early one day and finds evidence that Razieh has mistreated his father, a heated argument ensues, with harrowing consequences. Soon the lives of both families are unraveled, as Nader finds himself dragged to court by the intractable Hodjat; both men search obsessively for blame and responsibility, but find only confusion and heartbreak.

Though the narrative is set up like a stage drama, with much of it taking place in one apartment, Farhadi's method is also purely cinematic. As in many of Hitchcock's classics, the apartment itself is almost a character in the film. Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari's palette of earth tones reflects the story's moral ambiguity. The visual scheme is all about spatial relationships. Open and shut doors are a recurring motif, representing barriers - social barriers, barriers to understanding - but also thresholds, connecting one reality or truth with another.

The acting is outstanding across the board; Moadi electrifies in portraying the many shades of grief and doubt that Nader suffers while recklessly working to clear his name despite the misgivings of his wife and daughter. His sometimes selfish and irrational decisions always seem natural and unstudied, but always propel the story. Farhadi's screenplay is deceptively simple, patiently weaving strands of misunderstanding and conflict together, and ratcheting tension with clues dropped offhandedly in the middle of conversation. Despite the naturalism, there's a beautiful symmetry: each character is sympathetic; each one is both right and wrong. A Separation has an uncanny capacity to inspire reflection about what truth and morality really mean to all of us. At the same time, it's highly specific: the complexities of Iranian society are poignantly reflected in the tale of these two families.

If there's anything to quibble with, it's that at times Farhadi withholds crucial information from us, bending the rules of his otherwise open narrative in order to maintain suspense. The film has been accused of being manipulative. But the same can be said of the greats that influenced Farhadi, including Hitchcock and Kurosawa; and with this film, he deserves mention alongside them.

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