Foreign Is Familiar in 'A Separation'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
This Iranian film written and directed by Asghar Farhadi begins on an intense note: A couple are arguing before a judge concerning the question of dissolving their marriage. Now, despite the presence of more than a few good books on the subject, facts about the day-to-day lives of people in urban Iran are pretty thin on the ground in the United States, so the sight of a woman who, in every respect save the headscarf, looks like a contemporary and up-to-date American or European female, and acts like one too, may throw some viewers here for a loop.
As it happens, the fact that the couple, Nader and Simin (Peymann Moaadi and Leila Hatami) are in divorce court at all speaks to a certain cultural intractability. Simin has arranged for the family, which also contains teen daughter Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to leave the country. Nader now no longer wants to go because he feels he needs to stick around to care for his Alzheimer's-stricken dad. In a country that wasn't Iran, this sticky situation could conceivably be solved without necessarily sundering the marriage.
So far, so tense, in a domestic-drama kind of way. Still on relatively amiable terms, Nader and Simin try to work out a situation wherein a domestic, someone from Tehran's lower classes, can come in and keep house and look after Nader's increasingly frustrated, alienated and feeble father. Again, interesting, and engaging, in both a storytelling and sociological/cultural study fashion.
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And suddenly "A Separation" explodes. Not that way, not into a different kind of movie; Farhadi keeps his tone and his low-key style of shooting and editing consistent throughout. But a misunderstanding and a mishap involving the domestic help turns the family's situation into something entirely more dire than it was to begin with, with Nader facing a possible murder charge as well as the wrath of a far more patriarchal, religiously intense, and rather lumpen husband who feels scorned and disrespected in quite a number of ways. And all the while daughter Razieh watches her parents' behavior, learns from it, and acts on and against it, trying to find her own way in the emotional and legal minefield. At the same time, the viewer is compelled to move backward to the leisurely first half of the movie and replay it for clues as to what actually happened to bring the story to such an odd and sorry pass.
It's an admirable piece of cinematic sleight of hand that I won't say elevates the film, which doesn't need elevating. What it does is move "A Separation" into a more fraught zone of engagement and crafts it into an almost classic story of a wrong move in the wrong place at the wrong time, and how the specific gravity of a circumscribed situation can shift and turn innocuous actions performed with the best intentions almost deadly. It's a story with what they call "universal" appeal and ramifications, and the fact that it unfolds in a culture that's very much unlike our own while at the same time proving not entirely unlike our own adds yet another level of intrigue to the proceedings.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.