I have an immense amount of respect for directors who give us dramas. Unlike any other, this is the genre that demands filmmakers to be at their skillful best. Essentially what they are presenting us is a window into the world of these characters they’ve written through which we view them for about two hours before getting back to our lives. And within that time they are in the unenviable position of getting us to believe in the world they depict, care for their characters, and understand their emotions. If they overstep their limits, we call the film manipulative and write it off. If they err on the side of caution in writing their characters, we say we were never emotionally attached to them in the first place to care for what the film presents. Sure there are good, if not great, films that fall into both those categories – flawed classics to use the cliché – but they never stay with us as long as those that nail it to perfection. And perfection is a rarity for a drama more so than other genres.
But when you get that perfect film, there’s little left to do but stand up and applaud. That is essentially what I’m trying to do now. Asghar Farhadi’s critically acclaimed A Separation is the best film of any language that I’ve seen from the past year; and that includes last week’s The Descendants which can now proudly display its silver medal aloft. The word masterpiece is being thrown about a lot these days but I have no second thoughts in saying that if there is one film that deserves that tag it is A Separation.
The premise is really simple. Simin (Liela Hatami) feels her child cannot be brought up in Iran and wants to take her to a foreign land. Her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) cannot come along since he has to care for his father who is stricken with Alzheimer’s. This leads them to a family court which says that this is a minor problem for which divorce can’t be granted. Though they still love each other, it leads to a separation as Simin leaves for her mother’s while their 11-year old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter) chooses to stay with her father. Nader gets Razieh (Sareh Bayat), with her daughter to tag along, to watch over his father for the foreseeable future. One day Nader comes home to find his father has suffered a seizure and some money missing from his room while Razieh is nowhere to be found. Once she comes back, he is furious with her and asks her to leave at once.
It is only later that Simin informs Nader that Razieh has had a miscarriage and that she and her hot-headed husband Houjat (Shahab Hosseini) are pinning the blame on the force with which Nader pushed her out of the apartment. They file an official complaint and Nader is left to defend his innocence in court. Simin just wants to guarantee Termeh’s well-being irrespective of how the situation pans out. Meanwhile Termeh is caught in an uphill battle as she just wants to see her parents back together.
Earlier I said that dramas are essentially a window into the world of the characters the filmmaker has written. And that is literally how it feels when watching A Separation. There isn’t one aspect of this film that isn’t authentic, honest, and from Farhadi’s heart. We end up hating nobody or siding with nobody. We listen to each character’s justification about the predicament they find themselves in and we nod our heads as we understand where he/she is coming from. As a result, the only person who ends up suffering is Termeh. She’s mature enough to make decisions on her own and understand the seriousness of the situation but not enough to realize how it is tearing her parents apart. There is a quite brilliant scene towards the end which I thought was arguably the film’s best: The eyes of Termeh and Somayeh, Houjat and Razieh’s 6-year old daughter, meet and their expressions say it all. Even as their parents are battling it out to see who is right, their lives are being ruined and nobody seems to care.
A Separation also serves as a look at how big a role religion plays in the Middle-East and how it affects everything from their culture, law, to how they live their day-to-day lives. Early on Razieh has to consult an elder to request whether it would be fine for her to perform certain duties for Nader’s father. They also consider taking an oath on the Quran and lying one of the highest forms of sin. As someone who has lived in that region for a considerable amount of time, this particularly resonated with what I’ve observed in my own stay there. Be that as it may, this isn’t what the film is concerned with. It primarily functions as a character drama. That it ends up demonstrating the culture of the region is an added bonus for the viewers.
As is a given in any powerful human drama, the actors are an important piece of the puzzle. Because of my limited exposure to Iranian cinema, they remained anonymous for the most part, and that is always an added bonus. We always visualize only the characters without the added burden of a star. There isn’t a single performance that stands head and shoulders above others because each of them does their job perfectly. These actors aren’t really acting as much as living their roles. If I have to give a nod to someone it will be to young Sarina Farhadi who shares brilliant chemistry with both her screen mother and father and demonstrates remarkable maturity in her performance. But really I cannot highlight one performance separately in this film, it is the combined effort of all the actors that makes this film what it is.
There is also an element of mystery in the way the film unfolds and this is probably the only area where Farhadi has to rely on a cinematic technique of withholding information to keep the audience involved. Beyond that, this is just, to use the oldest cliché of them all, pure cinema. A Separation isn’t concerned with how we feel at the end which is purposefully left open-ended for us to ponder over what we’ve just witnessed. (I felt a clean ending would’ve ruined the film.) It is the kind of film that defies explanation. When you try to illustrate to someone why films like this are the reason you got interested in cinema in the first place, you cannot. There is no way you can make someone understand what makes **A Separation **a masterpiece. It simply is one.