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Life is Complicated

Asghar Farhadi's A Separation
Life is Complicated

The Islamic Republic of Iran may be as distant politically from the United States as it has ever been, but the movie industry in that country is producing some of the finest films to grace American screens in many a year. Perhaps chief among them is last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film, A Separation. This movie is a wonder of drama, film editing, acting, directing, cinematography and most other technical aspects of filmmaking, but more than that, it gives stunning insights into a culture very foreign to ours, while telling a universal story expounding universal themes.

The movie opens, as the early credits roll, with a shot of the bottom side of the cover of a copying machine seen from inside the machine below the glass. As the cover is opened and closed, documents of the main characters are photocopied by an unknown hand, while the names of the actors playing those roles appear on the screen. Rarely has a more effective statement of the main theme of a movie been shown in the opening frames of a movie. A Separation explores the difficulty of finding a clear path to justice faced by people living under the machine-like precision of law, in this case Islamic law. The way in which different sets of conflicting values and perspectives, i.e. the things people do and say, sometimes frustrate moving ahead in a society surfaces at every one of the many twists and turns of this movie.

The preliminary shot of the copying machine turns out to be nothing, however, compared to the power of the opening scene of the film. A “normal” shot of a man and a woman, seated in a bare room on simple chairs, looking straight at the camera and spilling their guts in dispute with one another over the terms of their marriage continues unabated for over five minutes, an eternity of screen time but completely engrossing for the audience. Viewers realize in a moment that they occupy the point of view of an Islamic judge, who contributes to the proceedings on occasion, asking questions, making brief points, but generally being drowned out by the couple’s bickerings. In that short scene, the audience is introduced to the two main facts—one is not wrong to say “problems”—of the couple’s life together: a daughter, 11, and the husband’s father who lives with them and suffers from Altzheimer’s. The judge concludes the scene with the chilling words: “My finding is that your problem is a small problem. Please sign here and good day.” As Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal puts it, “But the couple’s problem isn’t small, at least not for them, and their ensuing separation opens up a succession of fissures, chasms and moral dilemmas that define an entire society.”

The plot is far too long and complicated to explicate briefly, but the themes are not. Love and loyalty, law and forgiveness, truth, reputation, family responsibility, and justice surface at point after point in the film. Winston Churchill is reported to have said that history is just “one damned thing after another”, and that definition applies to the events of this film. Twists and turns pile up pressure upon pressure for the main characters to tell the truth painstakingly carefully, to avoid telling the truth, and sometimes to lie outright. One of the geniuses of this film is that with each new part of the journey, the audience is forced to judge between the characters without being prompted by the director of the film. In fact, his answer to the question, “Why did the government of Iran allow this film to be distributed in the West?” he replied, “I can only guess that my film came before the censors when the sun was shining. It may also have helped that I haven’t judged anyone in it.”

This is certainly true; there is not an unsympathetic character in this remarkable movie, and we are hard-pressed from the beginning to know what we would do at point after point, if we were the husband, the wife, the daughter or any other of the characters of this very smart story. It is also one reason this movie will make such a great discussion starter!

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