Wednesday Editor’s Pick: A Separation (2011)

by on December 15, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Dec 21 at 7:00 at the Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]


MoMA’s “The Contenders 2011” series provides an invaluable opportunity to catch this Berlin Golden Bear-winner and NYFF festival favorite before you start compiling that Top Ten list. But never fear if you’re heading out of town, Film Forum opens the film on Friday, December 30.


David Fear for Time Out New York:

Director Asghar Farhadi’s drama starts with a bourgeoisie married couple on the verge of divorce. Their marital strife is only the catalyst for broader dissection of Iranian society at large; once the husband and his housekeeper start feuding over a misunderstanding, the film cuts deeply into issues of class, gender, parenting, even the nature of truth itself. Everything from the performances to the impeccable mise-en-scéne is finely calibrated, and not a single false note is struck. By the time you get to the final shot—a perverse echo of the first—you’ll feel that calling it a masterpiece is too mild a compliment.


Scott Foundas talks to director and star at the New York Film Festival:


Adam Nayman for Reverse Shot:

The film is superbly written, but it’s also smartly directed, insofar as there’s a continuity between its writer-director’s ideas and the visual language he uses to express them. Take, for example, Farhadi’s staging of the first scene, which simultaneously anticipates other key sequences in the film while also standing alone, bracketed off from the rest of the action. We get a two-shot of the film’s major characters, Naader (Peyman Moaadi), a prosperous Tehranian bank teller in his mid-thirties, and his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), seated side by side against a white wall. This beginning is an ending, of sorts: the couple is in front of a judge and trying to get a divorce. During this static, uninterrupted shot, the pair speak, first in turn, and then over one another, about the rationale for their separation to an unseen arbiter.


Scott Tobias for The Onion AV Club:

A Separation ultimately focuses on a single incident with devastating consequences for the two families involved. The “separation” of the title is like the loose thread on a sweater—that first yank that causes the whole thing to unravel. When a wife resolves to leave her husband over his refusal to emigrate elsewhere with their 11-year-old daughter, the husband needs someone to care for his elderly father, who has Alzheimer’s. The wife hires a deeply religious woman who also happens to be pregnant; when the husband fires the caretaker for gross neglect, the scene gets heated and physical, and all parties convene in court to settle their dispute. I know that description sounds vague—the details are best discovered with masterful timing Farhadi reveals them—but A Separation is anything but, clarifying the massive stakes for everyone involved and the reasons they each have for not always being forthright. It’s a film about class, marriage, parenthood, honor, and justice—rich, prismatic, and beautifully performed, with one of the best original screenplays I can recall. In contemporary Iranian cinema, its closest antecedent may be Leila, Dariush Mehrjui’s excellent 1996 nod to A Doll’s House in middle-class Tehran (both star Leila Hatami), but that film has a single character at its center and the tragedy here envelopes at least five. Virtually flawless, right down to the perfect final shot.



Elise Nakhnikian for The House Next Door:

A Separation seems to invent itself as it goes along. It doesn’t mirror or mock or play minor variations on some timeworn genre or theme. It just pulls you in, instantly and inexorably, to its perfectly life-sized world. If it feels familiar, it’s because it’s as poignant, precarious, and endlessly complicated as life itself.


Nader is constantly schooling his daughter, drilling her on math and Arabic and other academic subjects, but the most important lessons she learns are the ones we absorb along with her. When is a lie the morally correct choice? How much of your own safety and comfort should you risk to stand up for the truth, and how much are you entitled to risk of other people’s? How do you decide whether to stay or to go if either choice will mean abandoning someone you love?

Unpredictable twists, a gathering sense of dread, and the tender humanism that infuse it all make Farhadi’s film absorbing, but it’s fundamental ethical and moral questions like these that make it great.



Larry Rohter talks to Farhadi for The New York Times:

Should we think of “A Separation” as a sort of detective film?
Yes, that’s exactly what it is. This is a film in which the audience is the detective.

What is it that you want us who are not Iranians to take away from this film?
I don’t want to explain my film. You take what you want from it. But I have a request: that the audience put away all presuppositions they may have about the film or the country it is made in and look at it as cinema and not as an encyclopedic representation of the country or society where it is coming from. It is surprising to me that some people think that we make films in order to introduce our country to the rest of the world. That is not my role as a filmmaker.


Do you worry that there might be some moments in this film in which the actions or behavior of the characters might be inexplicable or incomprehensible to Americans and other non-Iranians, given how different the West is from Iran?
Much of this film is not about Iranian society. It’s about human problems and conditions. It tries to depict the problems of relationships between people. I don’t like for it to be considered a depiction of a totally foreign other.



Mark Asch for L Magazine:

The film is a spiraling worst-case scenario for all the shameful little things you think you can get away without mentioning (and which Farhadi sometimes strategically elides): an inadvertent act of violence sees all brought before a magistrate, bringing charges and counter-charges, changing their stories and wheedling to witnesses, all the better to appear righteous in the eyes of both the law and each other, as the interlocking incidental details accrue in verité-style handheld, and slowly make clear the class, gender and religious divides in Iranian society.

The film is also harrowingly good at showing how parents, when under stress, treat their children the way they would treat an adult acting similarly, and the way granting autonomy can be a form of manipulation—a way of daring your child to defy you, and consolidating your authority. At one point, Nader tells his concerned, confused daughter that if she really thinks he’s at fault for the incident, he’ll accept responsibility before the courts—when he sees that she won’t, Moadi lets just the slightest smile play across his face.


Farran Nehme Smith coos over at her blog The Self-Styled Siren:

The Siren’s film of the festival so far. It deals with issues a good number of us will face eventually: a marriage (Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi) in trouble; a child (Sarina Farhadi, an absolute wonder) whose care and education must be secured; and a father deep in the clutches of Alzheimer’s. Into this mix comes an untrained care worker (Sareh Bayat) with money and husband (Shahab Hosseini) troubles of her own. Add the vagaries of the legal system, and this domestic drama takes on suspense that would do Hitchcock proud. Director Asghar Farhadi doles out information scrap by scrap through a searching, subtle camera. The focus on the ethics of lying–whom it helps, whom it hurts–and a child’s painful initiation into the world of adult deceit reminded the Siren of The Fallen Idol, one of her favorite films. The textures of life in some Middle Eastern societies reveal themselves slowly and exquisitely. The Siren was caught by glimpses of things she had observed in southern Lebanon–the many variations in the way women veil; the wide stone steps and big, screenless windows; the tight terraces and eerily quiet buildings that open onto chaotic streets. The performances are so precisely calibrated that watching Hatami cut vegetables or Moaadi open a door with a key reveals volumes about their characters. Often the Siren observes plaintively that more average moviegoers would like old movies if only they could see the right ones. She’s convinced that they would like brand-new foreign ones, too, if we could persuade them to take in something as good as A Separation.



Jaime N. Christley for Fandor:

Almost as if foretold by the double-sided justice found in both Farhadi’s film and Polanski’s Carnage, everyone who’s chosen to weigh in on the ongoing debates is kinda right and kinda wrong. Both films, pretty distant from one another stylistically, are the work of canny architects. Only furtively concerned with the marital divide of its title, and only ostensibly about The Event that comes to mean Everything and Nothing, A Separation is a beautiful object, each scene seeming to contain the entire film, the entire film seeming to speak in different tones through each scene. Farhadi seems to orchestrate the audience’s response towards things and away from them, often simultaneously.

Farhadi explores the theme of separation almost relentlessly, both visually (you cannot miss the infinite number of physical separators, from window panes to busy intersections) and narratively (arguably in a greater quantity of pivot points and elisions). What’s most enjoyable about Farhadi’s nimble construction is the way these two layers don’t require a point-to-point, this-means-this interpretation, but exist as freely-spinning flywheels, a dodecahedron of perspectives and sympathies, eventually coming to rest on a moment that, crucially, involves the gentlest, but most implacable resistance to separation.



An anonymous writer for the New York Review of Books:

Asghar Farhadi’s film Nader and Simin: A Separation, is a fine account of Iran’s predicament; anyone interested in the mysteries of change and tradition—the difficulties faced by many people as they try and reconcile themselves to modern values and norms—will learn much from it. I saw it in Tehran this summer, and so movingly did it reflect what I was witnessing around me, I was surprised that the authorities had allowed it to be screened and its creator and leading actors to travel to Germany to be honored by the Berlin Film Festival.

The film is full of poignant images: Nader, weeping as he scrubs his senile father in the shower; hot-tempered Hojjat, his life in tatters, beating himself violently about the head; and Termeh, tearful but somehow coquettish, a woman by the film’s end, when the bluff becomes real and the family court judge asks her whether she wants to live with her mother or her father. By now, of course, Nader and Simin has become something more than a family drama.
The grim irony at the heart of Farhadi’s film is that the angst and perplexity are the fruit of a “sacred” republic of ideals. Here is the signal failure of the ideological state that Ayatollah Khomeini set up thirty-two years ago, promising truth and redemption for all, but whose children are still waiting for these things, trembling and alone.



Michael J. Anderson for Tativille:

A Separation will turn on those things, within its governing system of abundant visibility, that may or may not have escaped witness, whether it is the ambiguous, just-out-of-view accident that transforms the film from household drama to criminal mystery or the piece of related information that will dictate the magnitude of the legal charges. With Farhadi’s film accordingly shifting into crime-thriller mode, the picture’s leads and supporting roster – the full slate of performers are superlative in their respective roles – are forced into investigative positions, as they attempt not only to make sense of their incomplete perspective on the events, but also on what will prove uniformly unreliable testimony. Consequently, the film’s players, along with its spectators, who in the latter case participate in the same acts, calling not only on their intuition, but also on their murky recollections of seemingly off-handed moments in the narrative, are made complicit in the operation of A Separation’s inscribed surveillance society. They become actors in the film’s economy of monitoring and reporting, which will result finally in a denouement that escapes every witness expect the religiously conditioned moral guilt that impacts one character disproportionately. Farhadi’s robust depiction of modern-day theocratic Iranian society, as comprehensive as any that this particular writer knows, is reproduced accordingly in the very structure of A Separation‘s narrative, just as the film’s mediated visual strategies allegorize the same theme imagistically. In transforming both in the image of the film’s distinctly big subject, therefore, Farhadi’s film qualifies as a genuine masterpiece of the contemporary Iranian cinema.



Kiva Reardon for Cinemascope:

There’s potential for melodrama here, but writer-director-producer Farhadi eschews grandiosity. Through small moments ranging from the mundane (Simin pays movers in her building to clear the stairwell of a dresser they were planning to abandon two floors into their journey) to the pointed (when Nader’s father soils himself, Razieh can’t help him to change his clothes without calling a religious hotline and investigating the consequences of assisting a naked man), we become aware of the stifling effects of bureaucracy, class structure and a rigidly maintained sense of decorum on people trying to follow the dictates of common sense. A Separation paints a picture of a society which is rapidly changing yet fundamentally stagnant; the film is a drama of intractability. This is the unresolved and pertinent question that Farhadi leaves us with at the end, as legally (and visually in the final shot) Nader and Simin are separated—the culmination of a film filled with scenes of characters being shut out of rooms or left waiting behind doors. The representations are complex: Simin represents a modern Iranian woman, with her loose hijab and dyed red hair, but her desire to leave the country feels more impulsive than any sort of statement; Nader, meanwhile, is sympathetic and caring (Simin describes him as a “good decent person” at their divorce hearing), but we can see that he’s desperately holding onto the decaying history and tradition his father represents. Throughout the film, both prove to be less than ideal parents, using Termeh even as they both claim to be doing what’s best. It thus makes sense that of all the hard choices in the film, it is Termeh’s decision that is left offscreen. Hers is the question that many Iranians wait to have answered: what next?


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