Sony // 2011 // 123 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 13th, 2012
Lies may lead to truth.
"What is wrong is wrong, no matter who said it or where it's written."
Nader (Peyman Moadi, About Elly) and Simin (Leila Hatami, Leila) are seeking a divorce. It's not that the Iranian couple has fallen out of love with each other; it's just that neither party is willing to budge on a certain matter. Simin wants to leave her country so that her daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) can have a better life. Nader wants to stay so that he can continue to care for his Alzheimer's-afflicted father (Ali Asghar-Shahbazi). Both are unwilling to give way on the matter. In the interim period, Simin has moved in with her parents, and Nader relies on a maid named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to help take care of his father. One day, Nader discovers that Razieh has engaged in some less-than-ethical behavior during her time as the father's caretaker, and he angrily fires her. This seemingly simple action sets off a chain of complicated events that take a serious toll on the lives of everyone involved.
For an ideal first-time viewing of A Separation, you should stop reading this review right now and simply go watch it. No, I don't plan on spoiling any major plot points, part of the film's success is the manner in which it constantly forces the viewer to re-think their position on the characters and their situation. The numerous revelations the plot hands us as the film proceeds aren't the sort of shocking secrets that are likely to end up on "most surprising movie twists of all time (spoiler alert!)" lists, but they do have a way of making us observe things from a different angle in retrospect.
The story is presented in entirely linear fashion, but the manner in which the film withholds information from us (while not necessarily withholding it from all of the characters) makes it feel more like Memento than Kramer vs. Kramer. Still, despite its smart, complex structure, A Separation never comes close to feeling like it's showing off. As we receive one piece of information, and then another, and then another, we aren't thinking about the cleverness of the writing but rather about what this information means for these characters. Writer/director Asghar Farhadi makes these human beings such real, complex, sympathetic individuals that we find ourselves very invested in them. These aren't expendable chess pieces; the stakes are high on multiple levels for all of these people.
What's truly remarkable is the manner in which Farhadi has captured such a broad array of humanity's crippling weaknesses without ever presenting any of his characters as villains. These are all fundamentally good people with understandable -- sometimes noble -- motivations. And yet, small things constantly prove to be their undoing, whether it's selfishness, stubbornness, pride, blind faith or thoughtlessness. The scenario A Separation presents is constantly on the verge of reaching an elegant, satisfying conclusion, but the characters keep stumbling on their way to the finish line. It empathizes with and bemoans our basic humanity, and manages to comment on so many aspects of life along the way.
Like many great films, A Separation manages to successfully paint a portrait of something very broad by painting a picture of something very specific. Just as Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life tapped into some profound universal themes by zooming in on a '50s Texas family, so does Farhadi's film dig into a myriad of global issues by zooming in on a handful of characters in 21st Century Iran. Their culture is so dramatically different from what many of us are used to; the manner in which their restrictive religion and their overbearing legal system inform daily life is obvious to some degree in nearly every scene. And yet this isn't an angry sermon about those aspects of Iranian life; these things are presented with a level-headed matter-of-factness. This is just the way life is, and people are doing the best they can under the circumstances. Even the film's government representative (an "interrogator" played by Babak Karimi) isn't painted in a particularly harsh light: he's just a guy trying to do his job and abide by the narrows rules Iran's legal system has provided him with.
There are so many strands of A Separation that could function as the springboard for a feature film in and of themselves: the desperate need for nuance and flexibility within a black-and-white legal system, the devastating effects of parental conflicts on children, the manner in which religion informs life (or doesn't) on a day-to-day level, the conflict between survival and character and so much more. That the film manages to include all of these things without ever losing focus on its riveting central drama is astonishing, and ensures that the film will continue to offer rewards with repeat viewings. Don't be fooled into thinking this is yet another well-intentioned but somewhat dull Best Foreign Language film winner: A Separation is as tense and riveting as No Country for Old Men or The Wire (albeit much less violent).
A Separation (Blu-ray) has received a satisfying 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that captures the film's muted, naturalistic look quite well. Detail is exceptional throughout, with facial detail in particular standing out (only natural, given that the movie relies heavily on intense close-ups). Surprisingly, there are stray pieces of dirt and grime that pop up from time to time -- quite a rarity in a modern film -- but they're infrequent and not particularly distracting. The DTS HD 3.0 Master Audio track is sturdy and simple: there's almost nothing of note in the audio department aside from the dialogue, which is clear and clean throughout. The piano piece that plays over the end credits is somewhat immersive, but that's about as far as such things go. Supplements include a subtitled audio commentary with Farhadi (who doesn't speak English), a half-hour Q&A with the director, an 8-minute interview with Farhadi and a trailer. It would have been nice to hear from some of the other cast and crew members, but Farhadi speaks with intelligence and thoughtfulness about his efforts.
A Separation lives up to the hype. This is both an important and unforgettable film, a gripping drama that delivers its tale with tension and tenderness.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 3.0 Master Audio (Farsi, French)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13