Friday, January 20, 2012

A Separation: Marriage and Divorce – Iranian Style

Iran may be a fundamentalist totalitarian regime, but many of Iran’s filmmakers are among the world’s best at exposing the deficiencies and flaws of their country on film. Their exposés have to survive state censorship, police harassment, the banning of their work and, sometimes, as in the case of leading director Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, Offside) even being sentenced to jail. Panahi is serving six years (and is banned for 20 years from making films) just for standing up for his beliefs. I am not altogether convinced that this isn’t something of a shell game on the part of the Iranian regime, which may ban or censor their indigenous cinema at home but seem, suspiciously, to be unable to ever prevent those movies from showing abroad at film festivals and in Western commercial release. (Panahi’s latest movie This is Not a Film was even made while he was under house arrest and facing possible jail time.) The fact that some Iranian films, such as those of now exiled Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (A Moment of Innocence, Gabbeh) have a French distributor does mean that these films have a life beyond the reach of the censor, which perhaps explains why those movies were shown in 1997 in political arch-enemy Israel’s Jerusalem International Film Festival, to acclaim locally and anger at home.(I attended that festival and was more than a little taken aback when I saw those movies listed in the festival guide.) Makhmalbaf himself indicated in a letter to the Iranian press that the showings in Israel had been approved by government officials, which, if true, was an interesting development in the otherwise fractious Iranian-Israeli relationship. Notably, Iran’s best known filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, Certified Copy), whose films are generally apolitical, runs into fewer problems with the authorities than any of his other famous cohorts.

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, which just won the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film, and in 2011 picked up the Silver Bear, the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, differs somewhat from his country’s norm in that he was able to make his movie without any government funding at all. Thus he could avoid the trap of having to sneak his critiques into his film, and was also able to attack the religious character of the state more forthrightly than any filmmaker before him. He was still banned, temporarily, from making his movie after he publicly voiced support for Makhmalbaf and the imprisoned Panahi, statements for which he later apologized, perhaps only so he could get his film completed. (Interestingly, it's very likely that A Separation, Iran's submission for Academy Award recognition, will be competing against Israel's Oscar entry, Joseph Cedar's religiously themed Footnote, for the Best Foreign Language Film award next month in Hollywood.)

Peyman Moaadi and Ali-Asghar Shahbazi
Melding the powerful drama of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973) with a provocative Rashomon-like storyline, A Separation, which Farhadi produced, wrote and directed, begins in a judge’s office as separated couple Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) make their case for custody of their eleven year old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Simin wants to take the girl abroad (the film implies that Simin’s not Iranian-born and, perhaps, particularly unable to deal with the societal restrictions women face in the strictly religious Iranian Republic) but Nader refuses to consider that option, as he feels obligated to take care of his Alzheimer’s’ afflicted father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). That decision has prompted Simin to ask for a divorce, even though, as she puts it, her husband is a ‘decent’ man. But the disinterested magistrate denies that request, forcing her to stay in Tehran, and move in with her parents while Termeh stays with Nader. It’s when Simin helps arrange for a caretaker a young, pious and poor woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to help Nader’s father that things escalate. A succession of events sees Nader throw Razieh out of his home, only to be blamed later on for her miscarriage, caused she says when she fell down the stairs. Did he cause it, did he even know she was pregnant? A Separation is full of hidden secrets, withheld information and a couple at the centre of it all who no longer know how to communicate with each other, if they ever did at all.

What’s always stood out in Iranian cinema is how the portrait of life in Iran, and especially in Tehran, the big city, is so much like our Western norm, yet significantly different, too. (The mullahs in Iran would cringe at the former statement and some have decried A Separation as proffering a false picture of the country.) Panahi’s debut film The White Balloon (1995), in which a little girl gets lost in the urban jungle of Tehran, paints a world where children are ignored, immigrants are viewed with suspicion and people fail to listen to each other. Sound familiar? But Panahi’s later films, such as The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006) are explicit broadsides launched at the state; the former depicting a severely circumscribed world where women have virtually no rights that are not granted them by men, the latter a lighter (and subtler) look at the lengths young women, who are rabid soccer fans, will go to to see a World Cup qualifying match when their gender is not allowed into the stadium. And Panahi’s Crimson Gold (2003), a film inspired by Taxi Driver (1976) and replicating much of its plot line, has a disturbing scene, one among many, where the cops raid a private party where men and women are illegally mixing. (The strictest interpretations of Islam prohibit women from interacting with any men they are not married or related to, a point of view it shares with the haradem, the most Orthodox of Jews.)

Shahab Hosseini (centre) in a scene from A Separation
A Separation also connects to and deviates from our Western way of life. Nader doesn’t get any financial help from the government to help take care of his father and thus tries to get hired help on the cheap. Any social safety net existing in Iran is frayed, almost to the breaking point. Yet when Razieh finds that the old man has soiled himself, she is compelled to call a religious expert to get permission to interact with him in an intimate manner by removing his clothes. She’s given dispensation to do so but later on claims that she wasn’t allowed to do so religiously, though she did so anyway. Religion in A Separation can be used cynically to suit one’s own ends and needs. Again, as in Judaism, Islamic religious ‘experts’ can contradict each other and regularly do so – Iran allows women to drive cars, whjle Saudi Arabia, with an even stricter religious dictum holding sway, does not – so Razieh’s claim is accepted at face value.

The holy Qu’ran, startlingly, is almost wielded as weapon in the film, to be used to settle arguments or disparage another’s religious beliefs or imply a lack thereof. There’s a whiff of fascism in the way Razieh’s intolerant husband Hojuat (Shahab Hosseini), in particular, tries to imply that Nader and Simin aren’t sufficiently religious, i.e. moral. You can almost feel the secret police ready to pounce and haul the disbelievers away, except you also get the sense that those expected to enforce religious conformity or at least ensure that no rules are broken – the judiciary, the constabulary – don’t feel very passionate about the subject, either. That a bit of Simin’s hair is frequently visible under her hijab testifies to the laxness surrounding current religious observance as displayed in Iranian cinema. I think it’s also looser than in any other Iranian movies I’ve seen, though, of course, in private Iranian women often don’t wear any religious items of clothing at all. That’s a fact of life that cinema in Iran dare not depict, at least not yet.

Other aspects of A Separation are more universal. Both the secular Nader and the hot-headed, unemployed, religious Houjat are quite paternalistic, forcing their wives to sneak around behind their backs – Razieh doesn’t tell Houjat that she’s taken on the caretaker job – and, more crucially, hold back information their men ought to know, if only to help tamp down the angry emotions that are pitting them at each other’s throats. There’s a violent incident in the film that shook me because I’ve never seen violence depicted so directly before in Iranian cinema – not even in Crimson Gold, which was more oblique.

While some pieces of the puzzle surrounding the fight between Nader and Razieh are eventually unveiled, putting new spins on what we thought we knew, other ambiguities, such as the specific reasons that Nader and Simin’s marriage has fallen apart, are not. That’s refreshing and pleasingly open-ended, and even morally challenging. It also makes up for the movie’s occasional contrivances, such as Razieh’s continuing to work for Nader after she quits the first day. The meshing of the main story and the breakup of the marriage, which brackets the beginning and end of the movie, and its devastating effect on the child caught in the middle, doesn’t quite coalesce either, though the films’ actors are all superb. But if Farhadi doesn’t quite display the easy directorial confidence of a Panahi, or a Makhmalbaf, and if the film feels overly planned and laid out at times, his peek behind the curtain of a society and country we don’t know all that well offers fascinating and provocative pleasures nonetheless.

 Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. He will next be teaching a course there on the films of Sidney Lumet, beginning on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.


  1. I find your review is flawed and politically motivated......... A very poor review indeed.