Jodái-e Náder az Simin
Review by Michael Nordine
Posted on 23 November 2011
Source Sony Pictures Classics 35mm print
As a sort of protective measure, I take notes while watching films I intend to review. Though sometimes a nuisance, I’ve come to find that it’s far less distracting than repeating a particular line verbatim in my head so as not to misquote it or attempting to remember exactly how a certain shot made me feel the moment it occurred. Depending on the notebook, these (often illegible) scribbles typically consume several pages. Here is everything I managed to write about A Separation: “There’s so much here, but I can come up with so little.” Asghar Farhadi’s Golden Bear-winning film is so difficult, so simultaneously naturalistic and beautifully cinematic, that I’ve found myself dreading the act of writing about it in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. There’s an immediacy to the film that disallows the possibility of doing much more than sitting back and attempting to absorb it, but the fervor with which it unravels is so unsettling that even this occurs largely after the fact. A slow process, to be sure, but one of uncommon pathos.
Intentionally going into the screening “cold” had the effect of knowing nothing of A Separation’s plot other than what’s implied by its title. Suffice to say that there’s a great deal more to it than marital woes. That said, every subsequent problem that springs forth - a daughter caught between feuding parents, an unwell old man whose well-being is jeopardized by a caregiver with health problems of her own, a husband made ineffectual by debt and an ill temper - share the splitting up of Naader and Simin as their point of origin. This is a schism of a film; its narrative entails the irreversible fracture of several selves and relationships, none of them easily understood at either the time of occurrence or even in retrospect. Marriages are hard, breakups even more so, and the inability of the viewer to neatly assign blame on any one party in a single situation is as exhausting as it is emotionally taxing. We have the feeling of being in the room with these people as their lives are altered, even more helpless than they are to effect a positive change or foresee a sunny outcome. Farhadi sets his sights, in part, on the patriarchal powers that be in his native Iran, but this, too, is far from a one-note indictment. Sometimes literally faceless but more often merely unresponsive and entrenched in their own ways, the men who represent the bureaucratic legal structure at the center of the drama are a source of further frustration for many. None can avoid their machinations, only hope to work within their sometimes arbitrary confines and hope for the best. This is no less freewheeling and stress-inducing than it sounds, but it’s also the final recourse.
Farhadi’s portrayal of this isn’t an overt critique so much as a discerning glance, as his most pressing concerns are more personal than political. Whether between wife and husband, father and daughter, or neighbor and neighbor, it’s a failure to be honest with themselves and each other that most isolates these characters. When somebody actually knows exactly what it is he or she hopes to get out of a given situation - itself a rarity - he either can’t bring himself to express that desire or finds it to be in his best interest not to. Few escape the suspicion of their peers (or, what’s more, the viewer), and many don’t even fully believe in themselves. It isn’t exactly Rashomon, but there’s a pervading sense of uncertainty and doubt that never fully recedes; truth is relative and often impossible to prove. “Tell me exactly what happened,” a judge says at one point. Problem: no one seems to know. Farhadi suggests a certain unknowable quality to his story, and it’s in the half-seen moments and outright omissions that the many crises are at their most dangerous.
To call the results despairing would be an overstatement, but they’re certainly desperate. Farhadi finds nearly all of his characters on the brink of something devastating, but there’s also a sense of it all being so plain and ordinary as to almost be inconsequential. That it makes the everyday seem extraordinary without losing sight of the fact that these sorts of things do indeed occur every day is one of the film’s most sadly effective feats. Rather than comfort the audience by assuring us that life goes on, it instead implies that the lowered expectations which go hand in hand with such trying times are themselves something of a defeat. A Separation’s characters emerge on the other end of their struggles broken down and tired; the point at which we leave them is something of an ambiguous reprieve unlikely to end amiably.
Farhadi ultimately assigns the role of judge and jury to the viewer, knowing fully well that even we who have seen more than any one person in the film are scarcely qualified for such a task. The opening scene, in which Simin cites her reasons for wishing to divorce and Naader expresses his reticence, is shot from the vantage point of a judge whose face is never shown. Here they are, pleading directly to us, and it isn’t only because we’ve just met them that their case seems hopelessly complicated. A full two hours later - at which point we’ve seen all there is to see and a major point of contention remains unresolved - we are once again made, if not exactly to judge the two of them, then certainly to observe them closely enough to understand the specifics of their situation more clearly than they themselves are able to. But the case is so muddled and volatile that to look for catharsis after everything that’s happened is a folly. Farhadi brings us as close as can be to these characters, but he also refuses to editorialize or nudge us too far in any one direction. One right turn deserves another, and so the trust A Separation shows in so carefully laying out its troubling goings on is meant to be met by a patient viewer willing and able to make something of it all. A subjective eye is as necessary as an objective one, but both are ultimately insufficient in charting the dispiriting progression of a group of people so vividly astray.