Iranian Film Separates Melodrama from the Complex Realities of Life
In an awards season when we celebrate the idea of George Clooney playing a beleaguered father/husband/family trustee who discovers that his comatose wife has been having an affair, while also juggling a monumental decision about the land rights to his family’s epic estate in Hawaii, it is fascinating that a film out of Iran could appear on the scene and cause audiences to question what we mean when we talk about the complexity of emotional dramas in narrative feature films. But, that is exactly what A Separation writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film dares to do, and the film’s sheer audacity should serve as a wake-up call not only to filmmakers and audiences, but to our social and cultural networks.
A Separation presents Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Maadi), a couple caught in a legal battle. Simin wants a divorce so that she can take their daughter and flee the social oppression of Iran, with its restrictions on women, education and civil liberty. She wants her daughter to have the right and option for a better life — and as an unspoken benefit, she too will gain access to rights and opportunities for herself. But, this is not to be, because the legal system is a male-dominated process rooted in religious authority, although there is more complexity in the situation. Nader’s decision to remain in the country (and to expect some support and understanding from his wife and daughter) stems from his role as the primary caretaker for his father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
The court sides, as it must in order to remain consistent to its creed, with Nader, and Simin is forced to remain unless she is able to cut off all ties with her family and her cultural roots, which financial security might allow, but as a woman — a lesser class citizen in her society — we see that is not even a remote possibility. So, she must use her wits to navigate as best she can, living a separate and totally unequal life in quiet isolation like women (of color or lower class designations) throughout history.
The film illustrates the differences between social, cultural and economic realities of life in Iran and life in the United States. Our sense of the poor and the oppressed here cannot come close to the ties that bind Simin and Nader. There is a rawness to the lives of Simin and Nader that goes far beyond the scripted scenes, digging deep into the very act of living and how people fight in the face of such inevitable tragedy, but they do so because there is hope, hope that we used to believe in, that we used to have faith in, that there is some chance, some act that might redeem us, if only for a moment. Even in the most restrictive of situations, a vital essence of our humanity continues to strive to (re)create a version of our true selves, a place where that idealized self can thrive. That sense transforms the play, the fantasy of these stories, into real human moments, real life, rather than a stab at some perception that we dub “reality.”
This argument should take nothing away from films like The Descendants, American Beauty or the indie dramas that attempt to immerse us in the lives of others, our friends and neighbors as they struggle courageously to live the dream. No, but I do mean to point out the sharp contrast with A Separation, which shows the family as a frayed fabric that we endeavor to piece back together, to keep whole, so that we can enjoy the warmth and security it still has the power to provide.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com