Videodrom: A Separation

A Separation will be released on DVD on August 21st. Really, you need to see this one. 

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film back in February. The reality, in a field that included the likes of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Help, is that this movie ought to have been nominated for Best Picture. And I wouldn’t have been disappointed if it had taken home the big prize; at least not as disappointed as I was when they gave it to a gimmick film named The Artist.

A Separation is the type of movie that ought to be experienced first hand, with as little foreknowledge of the plot as possible. The film has been inappropriately compared to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, but seeing it really is an act of discovery if you can go in with a blank slate.

I’ll strike a critical embargo with myself. I’m going to write about the film so that you can get a decent idea if A Separation is the type of thing you’ll want to sit through, but I’m going to skirt around plot details as gracefully as possible. If you already know that you want to see A Separation, then stop reading now; if you’re not sure, then I hope this piece will give you some direction.

Before going much further, I want to return to the idea that A Separation is an Iranian Hitchcock movie. Though it’s not nearly as slick, entertaining, or sexy as even some of Hitchcock’s worst movies, A Separation does thrive on suspense in a serious way; and like Hitchcock, the suspense is rooted in character psychosis and cultural morality. The suspense of A Separation is not a whodunit type, mind you. If you bother to pay attention to the key sequences, you should be fully aware of who did what (and who didn’t do what), even if you don’t always know exactly what their actions were motivated by.

You can learn a lot about A Separation just from its amazing opening shot. The camera is set up from the point of view of a judge as he stares out at a couple, hearing their divorce case. The female is seeking a divorce from her husband so that she can take her daughter to America for a better life. The husband will not grant her the divorce, because he does not want to lose custody of his daughter and he is not willing to go to America, because he has an aging father that he must take care of. Taken on its own, we might think that A Separation’s closest English language kin is not Hitchcock, but Kramer Vs. Kramer. But as it turns out, A Separation is an entirely different type of domestic drama. From a plot perspective, the hearing at the beginning of the film is nothing more than the first piece in a Ruth Goldberg device; it sets up a series of events that will lead to something far more compelling than any child custody battle. But in a broader sense, the opening shot acclimates us to the tone of the film – argumentation, legal and otherwise.

The Iranian legal system, at least as depicted in this movie, is an informal process. There are no juries, very little procedure, and no lawyers. It all seems pretty nice when compared to the extremely complex litigious system we have here in America until you realize that the fate of each case rests on one person – the judge. And if the judge is not convinced, then you reach endgame. There doesn’t appear to be much of an appeals process or any “beyond a reasonable doubt” clauses invoked in the Iranian courts. It’s in this almost free form legal system that A Separation’s main action takes place. Parties argue back and fourth; witness are called and dismissed almost whimsically; and events are reenacted not in the courts but in the place where they actually happened. A case plays out like a legal conversation, but it is a conversation first.

Truth becomes a flexible idea when brought into the courts. Justice in Iran still wears the blindfold and carries the scales and sword.  The movie, without giving away any plot details, becomes a meditation on truth-telling, morality, public appearances, the nature of justice, and parentage.

To say much more would hurt the experience of seeing A Separation for yourself. I hope I’ve enticed you enough to actually rent it. At first it may seem like a fairly straightforward drama, but once you see where the film is actually going, you should be transfixed for the duration.

This is one of my favorite paintings. It makes a discreet apperence in A Separation.

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