A MARVELLOUS CINEMATIC ACHIEVEMENT
The opening sequence of Asghar Farhadi's A Separation reminds you so much of the first scene from Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage. A couple is sitting before the camera answering questions posed by an unseen man, but basically talking to the audience. They're in a bare courtroom (unlike in Bergman's film where the couple is giving an interview to a tv channel in their plush drawing room), the judge pointedly asking the woman, Simin (the riveting Leila Hatami) why she wants to leave her husband Nader (Peyman Maadi).
She says she doesn't, but wants him to leave Iran with her and their teenage daughter in the interest of their child's upbringing. To which the judge asks her whether she believes the child won't get a good upbringing in Iran. Simin's fleeting expression of exasperation is a rare overt political moment in a film that gently explores so many different facets of life to illustrate how individuals and relationships are interrupted and disrupted by the forces of law, religion and patriarchy.
Nader scores a temporary victory when the judge turns down his wife's petition, but she walks out on him nonetheless -- Ms. Hatami's portrayal of this seemingly cold, self-absorbed woman is a direct contrast to her celebrated Leila, a devoted wife willing to go to any length for her husband's happiness. His wife's abandonment forces Nader to hire a maid to tend to his old, bed-ridden father.
The woman, pregnant and ill-suited for the job, is Razieh (Sareh Bayat), both timid and god-fearing. When she's required to change the old man's pyjamas, she first calls up a cleric to check if it's approved by her religion. She also doesn't want her ill-tempered husband to know that she's taken up work. Her little daughter accompanies her to Nader's house and strikes an easy rapport with his daughter (played by the director's own child). The two girls are silent witnesses to the drama that subsequently unfolds as all the characters get embroiled in a tangle not necessarily of their own making, and none comes out entirely clean.
Farhadi uses a hand-held camera and shoots in real locations -- police stations, schools, hospitals and homes -- to give the film a realistic texture. He also breaks scenes abruptly or opens them in the middle of a conversation to heighten the suspense, before deftly tying things up at the end. Much is left unspoken, particularly between Nader and Simin, but also in the persona of the old man with lost eyes, the unseen eyes of the law and the innocent eyes of the children unable to comprehend the cause of their parents' conflict.
Spartan in its visual style and vast in its dramatic sweep, A Separation is arguably the finest film of 2011 and richly deserving of all the applause and accolades it has garnered from all over the world, which, ironically, has riled Iran's conservative establishment for projecting an unflattering picture of life in the Islamic Republic. It's sad, because the film is, first and above all about human relationships and the differences that often make it impossible for people to coexist.