A Separation Review
As I type Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is still doing the rounds on the festival circuit, most recently having stopped off at AFI Fest. The trail began with its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February where it picked up both the Golden Bear for Best Film and the Silver Bear for its lead performances. Since then it has taken in Hong Kong, Bucharest, Sydney, Karlovy Vary, St. Petersburg, Telluride, Toronto, San Sebastián, Helsinki, New York and many more besides, and as with Berlin, awards and nominations have been forthcoming. More importantly, these festival screenings have generally led to distribution deals wherever A Separation has been shown. The film is getting seen and by a significant amount of people; it currently stands as the most voted for Iranian feature on the IMDb, eclipsing its nearest ‘rivals’ by some margin, including the films of Kiarostami and the Makhmalbaf clan or such populist child-centric fare as The White Balloon or Children of Heaven. Indeed, A Separation is itself populist fare, a genuine instance of international cinema attracting - and satisfying - a mainstream audience.
The full title in translation is Nader and Simin, A Separation, referring to two of its central characters. Yet this isn’t a ‘divorce movie’ concerned with the machinations of a break-up or, for that matter, the whys and wherefores. Rather it’s about the fallout that results from such a split: the effects, and after-effects, it can have on other people. Following a tense opening in the divorce courts Simin leaves the family home. Her husband Nader continues to live with their eleven-year-old daughter and his elderly father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Unable to balance work with parental care, he seeks outside help, resulting in the pregnant Razieh (and her young daughter) through a mutual friend of his wife’s. On the first day she must cope with the father soiling himself. Being a devout Muslim she has religious issues with having to deal with a naked man and tells Nader that she can no longer perform any care. Her husband is suggested as a substitute but his own problems result in her returning on a second day. As with the first it proves itself to be an eventful day, but more so: tensions, mistrust and half-truths arise resulting in a series of courtroom confrontations that will play out A Separation’s running time.
Those who have seen Kim Longinotto’s excellent documentary Divorce Iranian Style (and if you haven’t then purchase Second Run’s DVD immediately) will be fully aware that the Iranian courtroom is somewhat different from the US and UK courts so familiar from countless films and television series. These aren’t the arena for sudden twists, grand speeches or grander revelations, but smaller, pokier and arguably tenser affairs: just a tiny room with a single desk and few chairs. The confrontations of A Separation are therefore grounded more in dialogue than drama. And yet this may very well be the first Iranian film I have seen that could prompt Hollywood remake interest. Some major tweaks would have to be implemented, of course, but the framework would most definitely be in place for any American courtroom transposition. Beneath A Separation’s surface is a very tightly plotted scheme of slow reveals and a play on audience trust: we seem to be privy to all the details, but in fact Farhadi has been concealing many of the key facts.
It is most likely the plot machinations that have been attracting audiences and distributors to A Separation; this is very much a gripping piece of cinema. Yet where Farhadi succeeds is in convincing us that his film isn’t really about plot at all. He maintains this grip over the audience, but the emphasis is entirely on character and performance. Importantly he refuses to deal in clean-cut rights and wrongs or indeed clean-cut heroes and villains. (It’s easy to imagine that a hypothetical US version would do away with such sensitive handling and go straight for lean but ultimately underwhelming plot-driven dynamics.) His concerns are not so much about reaching any final revelations, but rather how the situations - the separation, the approaching divorce, the father’s illness, the scenes in court - affect each of the characters and, moreover, how these situations intertwine to further complicate reactions. Any temptations towards melodrama are neatly sidestepped, instead finding a register as simple, honest-seeming, almost everyday stress and strains. The father’s Alzheimer’s, for example, is never exploited, it just finds its place as a very real burden on the lives of those around him.
Farhadi is also more than happy to take his time, and to allow his camera to rest on tiny details and snatched observations. His opening shot - a single, uninterrupted take in which Nader and Simin recount their difficulties and differences almost to camera (essentially a POV shot in which we take the place of a judge) - is one that puts faith in his actors and, by extension, asks that we do the same. We’re rewarded not only with a uniformly excellent ensemble, one that’s been picking up numerous festival awards, but also a number of wonderful little moments. The scene in which Razieh’s daughter listens to her unborn sibling is perfectly observed, demonstrating Farhadi’s skill with his performers both young and old. Interestingly it is moments such as this one which remain amongst A Separation’s most memorable.
Yet whilst Farhadi populates his film with complex characters and situations, and provides us with these wonderful little asides, A Separation is, perhaps, ultimately a little too tidy. By the time of its end credits the significant questions have all been answered and resolved. Those details which Farhadi had been holding back are entirely out in the open, not only to the viewer but also to each of the main characters. We see their reactions, as different as they are, and end with a sense of firm closure, any remaining ambiguities having been ironed out. Some other questions do linger, but these are on the periphery. In other words those complexities which have fuelled so much of A Separation no longer seem quite so intricate; our own takes on the situations and the people involved are no longer required. And as such I wonder how much reward the film has for repeat viewings. The performances will always remains exceptional and those little moments will always be wonderful. Indeed, that first viewing will always be an involving one. But with its central ‘mysteries’ revealed - although mysteries is too strong a word - we are never invited to return and take a deeper look.
Artificial Eye release A Separation onto separate Blu-ray and DVD editions on November the 21st. For reviewing purposes they supplied a Blu-ray and it is this edition that will be considered.
The disc is encoded for all regions and comes with a collection of interviews as supplementary material. The film itself retains the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and comes with a choice of soundtracks, both in the original Persian. One is a DTS-HD Master Audio option in 3.0, the other is a linear PCM offering in stereo. As would be expected from such a recent production both the image and the soundtrack are clean throughout. The former demonstrates, at times, a wonderful level of detail, although at others the overall results can be a little softer than expected. The lack of consistency makes me wonder whether such changes in clarity are inherent in the film itself, though such concerns are muddied by the intermittent appearance of heavy edge enhancement (the opening scene in particular leads to expect worse than is true of the film as a whole). For the most part this is a very good transfer, however, with a consistent grain present and an undoubted step up from the standard definition release will provide. The soundtrack, which has to deal almost solely with dialogue, is excellent and poses no problems whether in 3.0 or 2.0. The English subtitles, meanwhile, are optional.
The extras would appear to have been ported over from the French edition. Here we find three interviews, two of which are with director Asghar Farhadi. In the first, totalling eight minutes, he talks about his career in film prior to A Separation which allows for plenty of clips (all of which are especially enticing given their lack of UK distribution). This piece also concludes with footage of him being awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival by Isabella Rossellini. In the second interview, which runs for a longer fifteen minutes, he focuses entirely on A Separation, noting its documentary veneer, the influence of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and describing the film as a detective story without a detective. The other interview is with actress Leila Hatami, who plays Simin. This one is nine minutes in length and discusses both Hatami’s earlier performances (her career began as the teenaged star of Dariush Mehrjui’s Leila) and Farhadi’s working methods, the latter again emphasising the documentary nature of the film as well as its lack of sentimentality. As with the main feature all of the interviews come with optional English subtitles. Rounding off the package we also find the theatrical trailer.