Published on January 2nd, 2012 | by Film Ledger0
The cinema of Iran is one of the world’s richest and has produced some of the best films of the last twenty years, a remarkable accomplishment considering the political censorship Iranian filmmakers must contend with. Iranian cinema giants such as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Jafar Panahi are known in film circles all over the world and while many of their films are banned in their home country, their work is recognized in festivals abroad. A Separation, Iran’s submission in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the upcoming Academy Awards is not only an outstanding example of the nation’s cinema, but is also the most compelling film I’ve seen all year.
A Separation, which revolves around a separated upper middle class couple in Tehran who become entangled in a legal dispute with a lower class woman and her quick-tempered unemployed husband, hardly sounds like the stuff of riveting screen entertainment but it is surprisingly engaging and as it progresses, it becomes nearly impossible to look away. The writer and director Asghar Farhadi demonstrates how to create suspense and narrative interest without resorting to any of the clichés of commercial entertainment. There are no shoot-outs or car chases in this film, just captivating scenes of actors talking where a mere glance carries more dramatic weight than a car explosion. The film is simple enough on the surface, quickly establishing its characters and the situation in the opening scene. A married couple is in court. The woman, Simin, wants to leave Iran with her husband and young daughter but the husband, Nader, does not since he has to look after his elderly father with Alzheimer’s disease. For this reason Simin files for divorce but is unsuccessful, leading to the couple’s separation.
The groundwork is set and everything that follows flows naturally from what came before it, building suspense that has less to do with what happens next than with how it happens and why. This is indicative of one of the film’s key strengths: its specificity. By welcoming nuance and complexities into the fabric of the narrative and refusing to streamline details and events, A Separation makes easy moralizing impossible; there are no villains in this film. Instead it enlists our empathy for each of the characters so that we understand the motivations behind their actions. The situation itself may be so specific as to seem arbitrary to a western audience, yet its microcosm of Iranian life explores class differences, the divide between men and women, the relationship between parents and their children, social and religious responsibility, justice and ethics — issues that are universally relevant.
Regardless of how this description may sound, this film is not some dry character study. Farhadi’s use of handheld cameras combined with quick cutting convey a sense of urgency, firmly immersing the viewer with its visual style which suggests the point-of-view of a present but unseen observer. Farhadi’s visual technique and storytelling craft are excellent but rely on the performances of the cast to have the powerful effect that it has. Indeed, it is in these performances where the movie comes to life. The entire cast is exceptionally convincing, conveying worlds of emotion and many different aspects of their characters without ever once appearing to reach for effect. They make the dialogue sound so natural and spontaneous it’s hard to believe they’re following a script. In fact, this is one of the best ensemble casts I’ve seen in a very long time.
A Separation is a textured and thoughtful film about human experience that also happens to be fully engrossing and entertaining. It’s contextually rooted in cultural yet completely accessible and pertinent to all. This is a rare film indeed.
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