Monday, February 6, 2012

A Separation [2011]

MPAA (PG-13) Roger Ebert (4 Stars) Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert's review -

A Separation (written and directed by Asghar Farhadi) is a truly excellent film that comes from Iran that's been been nominated for Best Foreign Language film for this year's Oscars (2012).  It is a very intimate film, small in scope, that nonetheless invites "those who have eyes to see and ears to hear" both in Iran and outside to open their minds and hearts and think.

At its core, it is about an Iranian couple Nader (played by Peyman Moadi) and Simin (played by Leila Hatami) with an 11-year-old daughter Termeh (played by Sarina Farhadi) that's going through a divorce -- an Iranian Kramer vs. Kramer [1979].

Why are they divorcing?  As Simin explains to the judge in the film's opening scene, that three of them had gotten passports and exit visas (to leave Iran), exit visas that will soon expire but her husband doesn't want to leave Iran.

Why doesn't Nadar want to leave Iran?  Because he can't bear to leave his father, who's somewhere in the middle stages of Alzheimer's disease.  Alzheimer's is, of course, a degenerative disease but it generally takes a very long time to actually bring about death.  Nadar's father is still living with them and when we meet him, it becomes immediately clear that though he has Alzheimer's disease, it's going to take a long time before God/Allah takes him.

So what then is Simin's rush to leave Iran, the judge asks.  Simin responds in a rather impolitic manner: She doesn't want her daughter to grow-up "under these circumstances."  And it's obvious that she's not talking about watching her grandfather slowly die of Alzheimer's.  The judge, with a somewhat offended voice, asks her what exactly she meant by that.  Simin deflects the question, but the rest of the movie is, indeed, about what she meant.

Apparently, though unable to divorce or even travel out of the country without permission of her husband, nevertheless, both Nader and Simin understand that the marriage is over.  Returning from the judge, Simin packs up some of her things and (as was done throughout the West decades before divorce became common/accepted) moves back to her mother's.

This leaves Nader with a problem.  Who's going to watch dad while he's at work?  With some help of Simin (again, anyone who knows anything of divorce would not be surprised by Simin's help here ... a marriage may be failing but the couple does not necessarily completely hate each other) Nadar hires a caretaker, a woman named Razieh (played by Sereh Bayat) with a cute little daughter and a husband who needs some help.  

Though set in Iran, anyone who's ever looked for a caretaker for an elderly parent in the circumstances of Nadar and his family would understand the circumstances of this caretaker: She's kind.  She's kind because she's religious.  And she's interested in the job because she and her family need the money.  As such, though religious and kind, she's not completely honest about her own circumstances (ie she's pregnant, and she has husband who's not particularly excited that she's working).

As such, though it may have seemed to Nadar that the situation with his father is at least temporarily resolved, right on the first day a problem arises:  Razieh's cute little daughter who Razieh takes with her to Nadar's home to watch Nadar's father  -- what's Razieh going to do? Hire a babysitter to watch her daughter while she watches an elderly man for another family? -- comes to her mom with the news: "I think the old man just wet himself."  NOBODY had thought about this happening.  Perhaps they should have thought all this through, but they didn't.  Again, nobody (except perhaps Allah/God) can think everything through ...

What's a good muslim woman supposed to do?  Well she calls the Imam (her priest) to ask: "Is it okay for a good muslim woman like me to change an elderly man?"  And she's knows the circumstances, telling the Imam: "He's old, he's senile in one of more advanced stages of Alzheimer's, so he's probably not going get aroused.  But he needs help." (Apparently the Imam assures her that in such circumstances she can change the old man's clothes ...).

In the days that follow, it just gets worse.  There's one afternoon when the old man manages to sneak-out of the apartment and she (approaching 4 months or so pregnant) has to go about running through the neighborhood (and traffic) looking for him.

The next afternoon, Nadar comes home early.  He finds his father with one arm tied to the bed and Razieh nowhere to be found.  When she comes back, surprised to see Nadar back from his work so soon, she tries to explain.  But Nadar's upset.  In the course of firing her for leaving his father "tied like an animal" to his bed, he pushes her out the door even as she continues to try to explain why she wasn't there.

The next day the police come and arrest Nadar.  Why?  Razieh claimed that when Nadar pushed her out the door, she hit the floor and consequently suffered a miscarriage.  Nadar didn't even realize that she was pregnant.  He tells the investigator: "How was I supposed to know that she's pregnant, when she didn't tell me and women wear so many layers of clothes."  By Iranian law, after a period of time (certainly by 4 months) an unborn child is considered a full human being.  Nadar's being investigated for murder.  And Razieh's husband is particularly upset because apparently he lost a son ...

What a mess.  A good part of the rest of the movie is about resolving this new crisis.  And while Nadar spends time in jail (if only for a few hours or overnight at a time), one's left wondering who's taking care of his 11-year old daughter and his aging Alzheimer's ridden father now...

Throughout the entire movie, the government is not portrayed as evil, but certainly paternalistic and to the Western observer unsettlingly/disturbingly/astonishingly (take your pick...) intrusive.  Yet the Iranian government is shown as certainly operating within the scope of its understanding of its purpose/mission in society and doing so with a good deal of sincerity as it seeks discern who's in the right and who's in the wrong in the case, armed ultimately with the same blunt tools of any bureaucracy / DCFS (Department of Child and Family Services).  Yet, most Western observers would find the level of government intrusion into the lives of both families disturbing/shocking. 

After all is said and done, Nadar is able to avoid prison, though Razieh and her husband have lost an unborn child and their financial circumstances continue to be the same mess that they were at the beginning of the story.  The situation of Nadar's father also remains precarious and Nadar's and Simin's marriage is conceded as finished by all.

All that is left is to resolve what happens now to their 11 year old daughter who it is clear to all both parents love.  And after all the other tragedies that play out in the film, we're left with that one.  Life is often very very hard ...

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