Sony // 2011 // 123 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // September 12th, 2012
Lies may lead to truth.
I won't generalize the entire Iranian film industry, but their films that make it to American shores tend to be directly about political issues, often taking the form of Romeo and Juliet-style stories. It's not that they're bad films; many are quite good, but they all seem the same, and I get weary of the lessons at the expense of rich storytelling. I expected more of this when I went into A Separation, but I found something refreshingly different. A story of family and the courts, there's good reason why the film won so many international awards: it's a beautiful piece of work.
Simin (Leila Hatami, Leila) and Nader (Peyman Moadi, About Elly) have acquired visas and are set to leave Iran with their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), but Nader decides at the last minute that he can't leave his father, who has Alzheimer's Disease. Simin won't leave without her daughter, though, so instead, she leaves the house and moves back in with her mother. Nader then hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a local woman, to watch his father while he is at work. After an incident in which Nader believes Razieh has stolen from him, he physically forces her out of his home, causing her to fall and, according to her, miscarry her unborn son. Now, with Nader accused of murder, the family must come together again to fight the charges, but lies on both sides of the argument make the whole thing very messy.
Writer and director Asghar Farhadi (Dancing in the Dust) is a clear talent of international cinema whose ideas are clearly expressed in A Separation. The story is simple on the surface, but there are many little details that add depth and complication in subtle ways that come together at the end of the film. This is especially true with the issue of the theft, which Razieh adamantly insists she did not do. She's telling the truth; the reality is shown in an extremely brief moment toward the beginning of the film that seems like absolutely nothing at the time. Farhadi demands, though, that viewers pay attention, because after that, it's never directly explained again.
The more pertinent issues become the miscarriage and the increasingly heated relationship between the two families. Neither is completely honest and neither is fair to the other, though Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini, Flags of Kaveh's Castle), Razieh's crazy and violent husband, keeps the viewer's sympathy firmly with Simin and Nader. The interplay between the families and with the court is fantastic, though, totally compelling throughout and enlightening about the Iranian justice system without ever feeling preachy or overwrought. It's not quite a legal drama and not quite a family drama, but both are used extremely well to deliver a completely satisfying and memorable plot.
A Separation is filmed on the streets of Tehran, giving viewers a glimpse of the culture and lifestyle in Iran's most important city. Farhadi films it all in a muted, unassuming style, but it flows together with the interior scenes very smoothly. The actors are universally fantastic and are helped in no small part by the script, which works on every level. But the people performing it take the words and run. They all have great chemistry together and their characters are very well drawn. Aside from Hatami, who has proven herself a great actress in other films I've seen her in, and Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter, the cast is almost completely populated by people who Farhadi has used in many of his films and it shows in their obvious comfort with the material. Really, in every way, A Separation is a very pleasant surprise. I'm used to big messages and big ideas in these heavily-lauded foreign releases, but in this case, we simply have a beautifully told story with great performances and nicely mannered direction. A Separation is a massive success, all around.
A Separation comes to DVD from Sony with a solid release. The 1.85:1 anamorphic image looks great, with nice colors and great clarity in both the interiors and on the Tehran streets. The stereo sound mix is a little bland, but there isn't a lot of necessity for really dynamic sound. The dialog is very clear and easy to hear and there is virtually no music in the film, so there is no issue with that. For extras, we have a detailed audio commentary from a modest Asghar Farhadi, who is reticent to talk about his work, but explains his thinking and motivation quite well. A thirty minute interview with Farhadi continues on the same lines, with audience questions giving him further opportunity to discuss his film. Finally, a featurette called "Birth of a Director" allows him to talk about how he got into filmmaking. Not a ton of extras, but what's here is of good quality.
Often, the foreign films that get picked up for wide distribution in this country are message-laden and scream "importance." A Separation is an important film, not because it's out to teach people something or enlighten them about some problem, but because it's plainly an excellent film. The performances are excellent and the writing is extremely solid. Even if you don't like reading subtitles, there's a lot of value here and I recommend it highly.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Farsi)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13