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NYFF 2011: ‘A Separation’ a rarity that succeeds on many levels

A Separation

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi

Iran, 2011

A Separation is one of those multi-purpose titles that suggests many different conditions under examination in this richly textured film.  The most obvious separation is the dissolution of the marriage between two main characters, Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi).  Simin has a visa about to expire in forty days.  Having failed to convince her husband to leave the country with her, she files for divorce and petitions the Iranian court to grant her custody of their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), believing she can find a better life and more opportunities for the two of them outside of Iran.  Simin gets the divorce but not custody of Termeh, so she moves in with her family as she prepares her departure from Iran and seeks further legal recourse to bring her daughter with her.

Termeh continues to live with Nader for the time being, but with Simin gone, Nader has to hire help to take care of his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. And so Razieh (Sareh Bayat) enters the picture. Razieh desperately needs the work to help pay her temperamental husband’s debts. However, she finds herself overwhelmed by the intensity of caring for an Alzheimer’s patient, and her devout religious sensibilities cause her to consider some of her tasks immodest and prevent her from fully committing to the job. When Nader discovers Razieh neglecting her responsibilities, he is enraged, and an emotionally fraught incident follows that results in more legal and ethical troubles for Nader and his family.

Auteur director Asghar Farhadi weaves an incredibly intricate tapestry with the story of A Separation, incorporating copious topical threads as weighty as gender politics, social justice, class, religion, morality, personal integrity, family obligation, and more.  Dishonesty gets inextricably tangled in the truth as storylines begin to pile up.  Every unimaginably heinous act seems inspired by a completely irrefutable justification.  Farhadi says that he believes the time when movies answered their own questions has ended.  He intends for his audiences to make up their own minds about the complexities his film investigates.  Therefore, while some situations reach a resolution and some don’t, the writer/director generously leaves all judgments to the viewer’s own conscience.  The film’s refusal to side conclusively with any one position of the manifold arguments leaves its meaning wide open to interpretation, and so it beautifully accomplishes its mission to engage the analytical faculties of thoughtful audiences.

The acting, like the writing, is multi-dimensional. This story contains no villains. Circumstances demand that every character, regardless of moral fiber or religious affiliation, perform a questionable act at some point. Ethical identities are challenged at every turn (and this plot makes good use of twists and turns). A tale that treats with grey areas such as this one requires actors with an acute grasp of subtlety in order to maintain the realism it’s trying to achieve, and Farhadi definitely found the right cast.

It is safe to say that Nader, who finds himself on the defensive for much of the film, feels the pressure more than any other character, so when his temper flares, it is understandable and wholly believable. Just as often his emotions appear perfectly restrained, as controlled as the tightly composed close-ups that showcase his reaction shots. Paymen Moadi’s portrayal as a frustrated family man possesses the perfect sense of quiet desperation inherent in somebody whose roles are constantly in conflict. His role as devoted son is at odds with the role of loyal husband or his role as fair employer. Who does he choose to protect: his wife, his daughter, his father, or himself? A heavy cloud of confusion constantly hangs over his head, and Moadi handles it all with commendable poise. The actresses, adult and juvenile, also merit high praise for their depictions of young women struggling to uphold strong personalities and opinions even in the face of persistent subjugation.

It is a rare treat indeed to find a movie that succeeds on so many levels. Farhadi delves into an impressive arsenal of filmmaking techniques to engineer visual indicators that

reinforce the film’s concepts. For instance, he often employs space, setting, composition, and blocking to represent barriers his characters experience in their society and their interior lives.  From the very first moments when the characters plead their cases directly to the lens of the camera to the final scene when they stand apart separated by a half wall, it becomes glaringly evident that every choice the director, actors, designers, and every other creative force behind the movie has made was meticulously devised. Not a single moment feels arbitrary, and at the same time it all feels completely natural.

A tremendous amount of thought obviously went into the making of ASeparation, and a tremendous amount of thought comes out of viewing it. It boasts that exceptional quality of intellectual stimulation that continues to haunt the conscience and imagination long after the screen goes blank. In the end, A Separation manages to break down some barriers with relatable emotional content that transforms empathy into introspection.

Kenneth Broadway

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