Wednesday, May 20, 2015
A deeper Separation than even I knew
I ranked Asghar Farhadi's A Separation my #1 movie of 2011, but because that was before I wrote a little blurb about my top ten films in the year-end post, I've never even had the chance to write about it.
But if I had written about it, I wouldn't have discussed the things I discovered about it on my second viewing, which further deepened my appreciation for it.
At first, though, I was concerned. My viewing looked like it was going to be severely compromised, as it was broken up into three chunks -- or four, depending on how you want to define a "chunk." I started it Monday night about 9:45, but had to stop after ten minutes when my younger son, who is sick, started squealing in the other room. Since our BluRay player's remote control has just recently broken (possibly a topic for a longer post), I couldn't actually pause it -- I had to press stop on the front of the player itself. Fumbling for the buttons in the dark, I accidentally ejected the disc, which means I had to start over from the beginning when it didn't remember my place (and when no option exists on the front panel to choose a chapter manually or even fast forward -- you are really limited if you don't have the remote).
After about 40 minutes I got tired and stopped it -- this time, figuring out what I needed to do to make it resume from the same spot. I resumed from that spot sometime after midnight when I had insomnia, and made it through to about 75 minutes in.
At this point, I was pretty sure A Separation would, through no fault of its own, drop a level or two in my estimation. Sometimes it can be hard to separate (pun intended) the quality of a movie from the circumstances of your most recent viewing, especially if it's the second viewing or less, when your opinion on the movie has not yet been validated by a positive rewatch.
But while my son was napping the next day and I was home from work, I finished the movie, and developed a take on it that I hadn't had previously (though I'm sure others have had). And if you haven't seen A Separation, now is probably the time to bail on this post as I am about to get into spoilers.
At the time, I obviously loved A Separation, but valued it mostly on the surface level of a single family struggling through irreconcilable differences in the parent generation and an unfortunate incident with an in-home care worker that might be criminal. Actually, the film is a struggle for the very soul of Iran.
On a core level it is a conflict between New Iran and Old Iran, but various people represent various sides at various times. The most complicated figure in that regard is Nader, played by Paymen Mooadi. He's the father of the family, the husband. From the very start he is set up in opposition to his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami). She want to leave Iran, as they had been planning to do, even securing travel visas for the whole family. However, he wants to stay, as he has a responsibility to care for his father, who has Alzheimer's and no longer even recognizes him as his son.
It's significant that this is Nader's father, not his mother. They both represent the patrilineal history of Iran, though there's a clear sense that it's dying. In fact, over the course of the narrative, this character goes from speaking a few words (touchingly, it's his daughter-in-law's name, Simin, we hear the father speak), to becoming mute -- further indicating the diminishing hold Old Iran has on the country. Nader seems stubborn for trying to cling to it, though not in an uncomplicated way, as caring for a sick parent is clearly a noble pursuit. Like everything in this film, shades of gray rule the day.
On the other side of the equation is Simin, a woman, who represents the future of Iran. Unfortunately, the overt meaning here is that the future of Iran is to leave it. That's one of many not-so-subtle comments about the state of Iran included in this film, one of the reasons it seems like such a surprise that the state actually supported this film (while imprisoning filmmakers like Jafar Panahi). However, a more symbolic reading is that the "leaving" that's being done is from the old way of thinking.
There's a different type of New and Old Iran on display here, though, and they may be kind of related to one another, except that Nader is on the other side this time. The conflict is between Religious Iran and Secular Iran. The reason Razieh (Sareh Bayat) makes such a bad carer for his father is that her fundamentalist Islamic views consider it a sin for her to touch a man other than her husband. When Nader's father soils himself, she can't help clean him, though finally does provide some limited assistance after an external confirmation from a religious advisor that she can don gloves and it won't be a sin. Nader is not religious at all, but as a patriarch he is also a representative of Old Iran. Perhaps that's why it seems that although he doesn't agree with her old-fashioned views, he understands them and never directly opposes them because he realizes they are kind of kindred spirits. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and both Nader and Razieh have enemies in the New Iran.
However, complicating issues is that Razieh is a woman, meaning there is a new school aspect to her that aligns her with Simin. In fact, late in the film, she goes and confesses the true circumstances of her miscarriage to Simin, even though Simin is overtly aligned with her enemy, Nader. She tries to get Simin to agree to accept the information in confidence, even though it is directly against Simin's interests to have her husband and daughter continue to be threatened by Razieh's husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). And through this we see Razieh is also in direct conflict with her own husband, who she says "would kill her" if he found out she had made this confession to Simin. She's another woman trying to escape the patriarchy -- even as the patriarchal aspects of Islam are her primary guiding principles.
But there are some other key characters we haven't considered yet. There are two children in this movie, and it seems significant that both of them are girls. Each family has a female child, one 10 years old and one about five. These are unformed characters who still must decide their fate. In fact, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), Nader and Simin's daughter, is being repeatedly asked to choose between her mother and her father, between the Old Iran and the New Iran. (We have less of a sense of the internal life of Razieh and Hodjat's daughter, as she has a smaller role.) The movie ends on a moment of ambiguity, as we don't know who she has chosen in the end. This seems to indicate that Farhadi finds Iran at a crossroads, trying to figure out whether it wants to become an active participant in the western world and western culture, or retreat into its intractable positions of isolation and religious intolerance. Since he doesn't know which way it will go, he doesn't tell us who Termeh chooses. Whatever private idea he has about who the character chooses -- if he has one at all -- indicates whether he is, in his heart of hearts, optimistic about the country's future, or pessimistic.
There's one other young character we haven't considered -- Razieh's unborn child, who is lost in the film's first half. It seems significant that it's revealed this child was male -- a throwaway line after the miscarriage that Farhadi needn't have included if he hadn't had a specific purpose to it. So there are two mute male characters in this film, at opposite sides of the age spectrum -- one is in the generation older than Nader and Simin in their family, and one is in the generation younger than Razier and Hodjat in their family. So the oldest and youngest examples of the possible future of Iran's patriarchy have nothing to say to those making the decisions in the present -- like Simin, Razieh and Termeh. They must choose on their own. However, the death of the unborn child suggests that Iran's future is very much in doubt -- that a new way of thinking may never get a chance to come into existence at all.
Of course, there's a good chance that this is how everyone was interpreting this film from the start, and I'm just late to the party.