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A Separation (2011)

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Greydanus and I both named it the Best Film of the Year Not Centering on Martyred Monks;

Where can I find your list Victor?

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Jonathan Rosenbaum:

A Separation also throws into relief a major theme of Iranian cinema that is rarely acknowledged as such, at least outside of Iran — namely, class difference. I can’t speak with any authority about Farhadi’s work because I haven’t seen any of his four previous features, but it does seem evident to me that even though the Persian title of his latest film translates as “[the] separation of Nader [the husband] from Simi [his wife],” which is the major focus of all the reviews of the film I’ve read, the true separation and conflict that produces and sustains most of the film’s drama is between the classes of the two families involved, comfortable middle-class (in the case of both Nader and Simi) and struggling working-class. And if one considers most of the major classics of Iranian cinema, starting with Farrokhzad’s The House is Black and Golestan’s Brick and Mirror in the 60s and continuing through the features of Makhmalbaf and his family, Kiarostami, and Panahi over the next four decades, the huge gap between the rich and the poor — which has lately become a big issue in American politics, for the first time since the Depression, but has been central to Persian culture since its inception — is clearly an inextricable part of their subject matter.

There are also significant differences between the way gender issues are perceived in Iran and in the West. My Iranian-American friend and sometime writing collaborator, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, who has seen (and mainly prefers) Farhadi’s earlier features, points out that the huge obstacles Iranian women face in getting divorces — the subject of an excellent 1998 documentary, Divorce Iranian Style (Kim Longinotto & Ziba Mir-Hosseini) — are essentially ignored in A Separation, thus challenging the film’s claims to treat the positions of Nader and Simi with equal amounts of sympathy. In short, what audiences don’t know can be as pivotal in determining the meaning of certain films as what they do know.

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Ferdy on Films brings a contrary opinion to the table:

... A Separation is not the first-rate film I was hoping for. The plot is unwieldy, and too full of melodramatic reveals that undermine a more complex assessment of the dilemmas these two families face. The character of Razieh is particularly problematic. She’s basically a simple-minded disaster, avoiding her charge to watch Nader’s father and spending her time leaving the apartment to empty the trash and run other errands. Her

failure to tell the truth

makes sense in some situations and no sense in others. A lot of the plot of the film revolves around her, so her character needed to be more strongly drawn than it was. Termeh has enough maturity and intelligence to go to bat for her father, but her

unrehearsed lie to the judge

is so smooth that it comes off as scripted. Simin, well realized by the fine performance of Hatami, is pushed mainly to the periphery of the film, letting some of the air out of the interesting dynamic the film sets up initially. Hatami is the anchor of this film, keeping some of the more melodramatic moments grounded. When she is not in similar scenes, the film becomes overwought.

I would never say this isn't a first-rate film, but this does get at something that's been bugging me. The big "reveal" is a moment that doesn't sit quite right with me. The movie put us in the position of the judge, trying to make sense of the puzzle presented to him, and in the end, for all of its exquisite complexity, it does kind of boil down to a "twist" that seemed like something from a typical courtroom thriller. It leads me to wonder how the film would have been different if there had been no selective omission, no withholding of crucial information from the audience until the end. Would we have cared any less? Perhaps all of our attention would have been focused on exposing the lie, whereas if we don't know there's a lie we become more invested in the story. I'm not sure. I really can't decide.

Edited by Overstreet

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I couldn’t disagree more with your 'doubts.'

I found myself thinking about the film’s twist too, but I think it’s utterly appropriate. Why? Because one of the most fascinating things in the film is the question – just what happened? So many characters are untruthful with each other, and change their story so many times, that (as an audience member) by the end of it I didn’t know what was true?

*SPOILERS* Did Nader know if Razieh was pregnant or not? That’s a question that comes up constantly throughout the film, and it’s one that (as the audience member) I didn't know the answer to.

The film makes you take sides. It makes you start excusing and justifying some character’s actions and vilifying another’s.

And I think this is purposeful.

Revealing the ‘twist’ earlier would have made the film dramatically limp. It would have made for a far less powerful experience, precisely because it wouldn’t be putting us in the position of the judge. And making us the judge, I think, is one of the film’s most powerful statements.

Edit: My point being, I don't think the twist makes this no more than an exquisitely crafted courtroom thriller. Because the point isn't to thrill us. The point is (by withholding information that only one character is privy to) to show us how these kinds of situations are polarizing. By making the audience participants in the drama - by making us take sides, much in the same way the daughter is made to take sides - Farhadi is saying something powerful about divorce, about 'separation,' about legal disputes. That's why the twist works, and why it's absolutely essential.

Edited by Timothy Zila

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Maybe you don't relate to my uncertainties, but can one disagree with uncertainties? I didn't make an argument or express an opinion. I just shared some questions I'm considering, that's all.

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I do relate to your uncertainties, as I found myself asking the same question after the film. But (after one viewing, at least) I think I have my own 'answer' to those uncertainties - which is what I presented in my argument.

Also, open question here: If the twist in A Separation is 'cheap' or 'misguided' or whatever you want to call it, what about the twist in Certified Copy?

Is there something more essential about the twist in Certified Copy?

To me, it seems the twists are essential to both films as we've seen them. Maybe you could theoretically make the film 'work' without the twists, but neither of them feels ultimately ill-advised or unnecessary or cheap to me.

Also *SPOILER*, I do like the way the car sequence is edited. It ends so abruptly and unexpectedly that we, as the audience, know something is wrong. I had no idea that she had gotten hit (after all, we're concerned about him being hit by the car, not her), but there was something very odd about the sequence that made it stand out.

And, to renege a bit on my former position, I suppose maybe we don't absolutely need the twist. We know, from other sequences in the film *SPOILERS*, that something was wrong with Razieh well before she was 'hit' (I'm thinking of the sequence on the bus). So we know there's more to the story (whether she was having a 'natural' miscarriage or because her husband hit her . . . we just don't know).

So, I don't know, maybe your're right to be uncertain. Maybe the twist was entirely unnecessary. I do think, though, that showing her be hit by a car would be a bad decision. I think there needs to be some uncertainty about what happened, but you could certainly make the case that the reason for the miscarriage didn't need to be *SPOILER* a car accident.

Edit: And no, you can't disagree with uncertainties. You're quite right about that. The argument I presented was more of a counter-argument to the imaginary argument against the twist. You weren't presenting that argument, but the argument itself is implied in your uncertainties.

But now that, after thinking about about it myself for a few minutes, I've reneged quite a bit on my former position, I don't suppose it matters much anymore.

Edited by Timothy Zila

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Is there something more essential about the twist in Certified Copy?

I don't recall a "twist" at the end of Certified Copy. I recall a moment early in the film that enhances and amplifies questions that have already been at work in the film (What is their relationship?). The revelation near the end of A Separation answers a central question. What you're calling a "twist" early in Certified Copy increases what I would call a "useful uncertainty."

Anyway, I'm not saying the "twist" in A Separation is bad. Just a little unsettling to me.

Looking around, I find that Michael Sicinski makes an actual objection, where I have only some misgivings. And yet, like me, he's concerned that this will make him seem like he's measuring the film as something less than great, which he is not, and neither am I.

Sicinski:

But on the level of narrative construction [MASSIVE SPOILER FOLLOWS]

I could not help but feel that Farhadi using a temporal ellipse in order to withhold our (usually pretty omniscient) knowledge of what becomes the film's single most pivotal event is a major cheat. We see Razieh chasing Nader's father outside, as he is trying to buy a newspaper at the kiosk. Then, a straight cut to a close-up of a foosball figure swiftly getting "bumped" from the upright to the lateral position. (Admittedly, as super-subtle foreshadowing goes, that's pretty damned sly.) But to find out only near the very end, oh yeah, your dad got out, I was chasing him in traffic and got hit by a car, also I lost the baby then and there, not from any incident on the stairs, just seems like a dodgy dramaturgical maneuver bordering on the deus ex machina. (But then Mark Peranson has asked, couldn't the whole movie have been avoided by asking this devout woman to just swear on the Koran? Game over! Maybe...)

But since some of my friends took this structural objection as a willful gadflyism, a refusal to acknowledge that Farhadi had just made one of the films of the decade pure and simple, I opted to accentuate the positive in my review. Which, let me reiterate, is not hard to do with a film like this. It really is amazing.

Again, this isn't a matter of right and wrong. It's a matter of individual experience: How did the approach to storytelling feel to you? The film overwhelmed and amazed me, and left me with some nagging questions about one particular storytelling choice.

Edited by Overstreet

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A twist doesn't have to be at the end of the film to be a twist.

Certified Copy's 'twist' is somewhere in the middle. And, to be honest, feels as much like a deliberate omission as the twist in A Separation.

And I'm not trying to argue whether the twists are right or wrong, just trying to get at what their effect is.

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Another difference: Certified Copy's "twist" is also mentioned in most of the reviews and descriptions and summaries of the film I've seen. There hasn't been much of an attempt to hide it, and it's difficult to talk about the film without discussing it. By contrast, I've yet to find a review that mentions the Separation twist without first offering massive spoiler warnings.

Edited by Overstreet

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Another difference: Certified Copy's "twist" is also mentioned in most of the reviews and descriptions and summaries of the film I've seen. There hasn't been much of an attempt to hide it, and it's difficult to talk about the film without discussing it. By contrast, I've yet to find a review that mentions the Separation twist without first offering massive spoiler warnings.

True. For what it's worth, I knew about Certified Copy's 'twist' going in, and still was surprised anyway.

Both of the twists strike me as 'magic tricks' of sorts - different magic tricks, yes, which are embedded into the story in different ways (Certified Copy's being embedded more thoroughly) but they're in the same ballpark.

Anyway, in light of how things have been going in the John Carter thread, I wanted to apologize if I've been (or seemed) belligerent or mean-spirited here.

Sometimes I feel as if my comments aren't understood or appreciated (even if others disagree - which is a different matter), and I'm sure I've made others feel the same way.

I do, though, find myself asking the same questions you're asking. I've also put forth some thoughts on why, perhaps, the twist isn't a problem . . . at least for me.

But I'll leave it at that for now. There's a lot more to this film than the twist, and it'd behoove us not go get hung up on it.

In that light of that, some of my other thoughts:

The influence of the West:

This is a small thing (or mostly implicit) in some ways, but I was really struck by the influence of the West. It's most obvious, I think, in the girl's backpack. But in an early scene (*SPOILER* of a small-sort), we see the father having his daughter fill the gas up - which strikes me as purposefully unusual. What I got was that the father wants more for his daughter than is generally deemed acceptable by the surrounding culture.

On that note, I really like Razieh's dilemma of faith here. It might be easy, as a 'Christian,' to ungenerously dismiss her crisis, but it's an unusually good example of someone wrestling with what their faith means.

Which brings me to what struck me the most about the film: The Bible says (heavily paraphrased): "Isn't it great when God's children get along?"

I found myself thinking about that while I watched the film. I imagine this is something like what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians and told them not to go to court with a brother or sister in Christ - because look what happens. We become polarized. We lie - to our children and our spouse and ourselves. We become violent. We renege on our former commitments (it seems to me that Nader becomes quite a bit more chauvinistic when the situation escalates).

This isn't what God's children should be doing - and yet we all probably find ourselves living out situations that have much the same effect, if only on a smaller scale.

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Wow! What a remarkable film!

Some spoilers ahead in some of my initial thoughts (just saw this tonight!):

My initial reaction was almost exactly D'Angelo's when he says:

I know of no other film so insightful about the ways that parents unwittingly manipulate and even emotionally terrorize their kids, always with the best of intentions and no recognition of the possible consequences. (To say that the final scene wrecked me would be an understatement.)

This is what really struck me, and I also couldn't get over how human these characters are in good and bad ways. The characterization really is amazing!

Honestly, the reveal that I kept waiting for was to gain more of an insight into the wife's decision to leave her husband. I wanted something more, I think. In a way, though, I'm glad the film didn't give it to me. Something more and too much weight may have been placed on the husband, and then I have the scapegoat that the film is delicately trying to avoid. Something more, and my "judgment" would have been more easily rendered on one of the characters, when one of the most significant points of the film for me was the notion, "how (who!) am I to render a fair judgment of this situation?" What a web we weave, and yet so often don't perceive just how tangled it really is.

And, yet, I think the reason I wanted something more is because their marital separation (though, it's not the only "separation" in the film) feels so obviously central to the burdens placed on their daughter. And it's truly striking how, because of the separation, the seemingly quotidian quickly spirals increasingly out of control.

Is it me or is this the film that people should love for the reasons Crash was so celebrated? Isn't this what Crash aspires to be--you know--except with brilliant characterization as opposed to contrived arbitrariness?

Edited by Nicholas

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Todd and I have podcasted this film (not spoiler free) over at The Thin Place:

SHOW NOTES:

  • 0:30 – Intro, summary, faith, and why we’re watching
  • 3:48 – Anti-religious or anti-legalism?
  • 11:39 – Fear vs. love vs. duty
  • 15:28 – Is Nader sympathetic?
  • 22:13 – Legalism that’s state supported
  • 28:17 – Being for something rather than against everything
  • 32:45 – Recommendation and show close

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A year after winning the Foreign Film Oscar for A Separation, Iran is boycotting the Academy Awards over "The Innocence of Muslims."

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Good thread, read quickly after I posted a reaction to the film on Facebook this morning.

Michael Sicinski on A Separation.

There has been a related angle of more specific criticism, namely that the film is fundamentally anti-cinematic, that the Berlin jury opted to award Farhadi’s “screenplay-driven” work over purer filmic expression.

Tis critique is one I agree wit to some extent, and it holds me back just a smidge from hailing the film as the masterful work it is on other levels -- screenwriting, acting. I hate to think that, as I've argued in the past, "filmed plays" can be great films as long as they tell their story well and are well performed. I make no demands that a film be "cinematic" in terms that others, including myself, sometimes think of as cinematic -- opening up interior spaces, sweeping camerawork and vistas. I've seen enough films to know those things can be distractions at least as often as they're helps. What more do you need than the cinematic space to allow for great performers to perform a great screenplay?

I'm not sure of the answer, but I felt myself wanting a little something more from A Separation, if that makes sense. (No, it doesn't, and I understand if you dismiss my comments.) Earlier thread comparisons to Margaret are apt. I'd rather watch Margaret again, although ...

And yet! Everyone is so sympathetic, so likable, so understandable, so real. I'm not sure there's one character in the film I didn't utterly relate to and identify with. Everyone's decisions and actions are completely understandable within their own framework, their own point of view—and everyone's point of view makes complete sense in its own terms. I can't think of the last film for which I cared so much about so many characters so conflicted in their relationships with one another.

This is true. Which makes me question my reaction. Look, I really, really liked A Separation. But there's something -- and I'm not sure what it is -- that's holding me back from the ecstatic embrace of so many others. A film shouldn't have to clear the "ecstatic embrace" bar, but this one, given all that's been written and said about it, had me primed for something great. And then it delivered that something. So why am I fumbling to explain that I thought a little something might be missing?

Edited by Christian

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Well, I saw A Separation a couple of months ago, and was very impressed. In fact, it seemed to me a great example of the sort of film I wish 'Christian' filmmakers would aim for, instead of giving us potted sermons or hysterical right-wing diatribes. It's an absorbing, intelligent film about real people facing universal problems. It has absolutely no obscene material, and yet is resolutely 'adult' in its approach to life. It's a proper film for grown-ups.

I hate to think that, as I've argued in the past, "filmed plays" can be great films as long as they tell their story well and are well performed. I make no demands that a film be "cinematic" in terms that others, including myself, sometimes think of as cinematic -- opening up interior spaces, sweeping camerawork and vistas.

I've been puzzling over these two sentences, because on first glance they're self-contradictory. However, I sympathise with the gist of what (I think) you're saying; I love directors who feel inherently cinematic - Malick would be my supreme example - but on the other hand there are so many fantastic films which might just as well be 'filmed plays': His Girl Friday, My Dinner With Andre, etc.

Regarding A Separation - I didn't think it was a masterpiece, but I was just so grateful for a film which looked at everyday life without being either miserabilist (as in indie cinema) or manipulative (as in Hollywood). It felt so refreshing.

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Well, I saw A Separation a couple of months ago, and was very impressed. In fact, it seemed to me a great example of the sort of film I wish 'Christian' filmmakers would aim for, instead of giving us potted sermons or hysterical right-wing diatribes. It's an absorbing, intelligent film about real people facing universal problems. It has absolutely no obscene material, and yet is resolutely 'adult' in its approach to life. It's a proper film for grown-ups.

Right! I thought the same thing, which is part of the reason I was eager to post it on Facebook. A lot of Christian friends see my posts there, and while many/most are open to all types of films and all ratings, some are very sensitive to offensive content. I think this is an ideal film to recommend to adult Christians who tend to wait for whatever the latest film is to get the Christian "seal of approval."

I've been puzzling over these two sentences, because on first glance they're self-contradictory. However, I sympathise with the gist of what (I think) you're saying; I love directors who feel inherently cinematic - Malick would be my supreme example - but on the other hand there are so many fantastic films which might just as well be 'filmed plays': His Girl Friday, My Dinner With Andre, etc.

Regarding A Separation - I didn't think it was a masterpiece, but I was just so grateful for a film which looked at everyday life without being either miserabilist (as in indie cinema) or manipulative (as in Hollywood). It felt so refreshing.

I write contradictory stuff all the time. Feel free to point it out and question it. I won't melt. :) That said, I didn't think I was being contradictory, just expressing my own warring tendencies in terms of what I consider cinematic.

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...but on the other hand there are so many fantastic films which might just as well be 'filmed plays': His Girl Friday, My Dinner With Andre, etc.

Regarding A Separation - I didn't think it was a masterpiece, but I was just so grateful for a film which looked at everyday life without being either miserabilist (as in indie cinema) or manipulative (as in Hollywood). It felt so refreshing.

[emphasis above mine]

Hmmm. I think HIS GIRL FRIDAY would certainly lose something as a filmed play. Hawks's film is an example of Hollywood filmmaking par excellence, albeit the style is one of self-effacing style, lending the illusion of naturalism, but really it is constructed of shot-reverse-shots, cuts on action, and many other classic tricks of the trade.

I'm not sure that A SEPARATION could likewise be as effective as a play. I think it is cinematic in as far as its style allows us to enter into their home and lives in a way that a play never could.

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What would His Girl Friday lose? I love the film, and Hawks certainly directed it with an unassuming grace, but I struggle to think of anything inherently cinematic in the story - anything which demands this medium rather than the theatre. After all, it was originally a play - The Front Page - and the most drastic change was not in the presentation of the material, but in changing Hildy into a woman.

I didn't actually say A Separation would work as a play, but on reflection it probably could - of course it wouldn't be exactly the same, but it could convey most of the same emotions in a very similar way. Isn't the theatre an ideal medium for entering the 'homes and lives' of characters?

In reference to the term 'cinematic' - I think David Thomson once said the most uniquely cinematic view is a person's face when they are changing their mind. Interesting thought.

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