Sunday, January 15, 2012

123. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s “Jodái-e Náder az Simin” (Nader and Simin: A Separation) (2011): A delightful study of gender differences and the importance of keeping the family together

Iranian cinema has made impressive strides in recent decades and Nader and Simin: A Separation is undoubtedly the crowning achievement of Iranian cinema in 2011. It is not often that any film wins three of the four top honors at a major festival such as the Berlin Film Festival 2011.  Apart from the Golden Bear for the best film,  Nader and Simin: A Separation won the Silver Bears for Best Actor and Best Actress—it only missed out on the Best Director, a redundant award after having won the Golden Bear. The many other awards the film has won include the Silver Peacock for the best director at the Indian International Film Festival held in Goa and the Golden Globe for the best foreign film. No Iranian film has received such an impressive and varied international recognition to date.

There are many reasons to admire this work of cinema. One, it is one of the few Iranian films that has enjoyed equal recognition within Iran and elsewhere. Though the film has slivers of implicit critical commentary on the conditions in Iran today, the mainstay of the film is a social commentary that could take place anywhere in the world. It is probably this fact that led the current government of Iran to allow this film as an official entry of Iran at the Oscars 2012.

The second reason that evokes admiration is that the film is not about a separation leading to divorce, but instead a film on how a wife, Simin, of 14 years desires to be with her husband, Nader, but emigrate from Iran and thus give a fillip to the future of their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh. Another aspect of this social value chain is the bull-headed stand of Nader, who refuses to emigrate because of his ingrained Asian fundamental value of the son's moral responsibility to care for his Alzheimer-stricken father in Iran. Nader’s viewpoint is the derived from the Asian value of parents giving all their efforts and savings for their offspring, quite in contrast to modern western values. The film thus underscores the importance of a family, the love of a mother for her daughter, a son for his father, a daughter for her parents, and an economically weak husband, Hodjat, for his wife Razieh and their daughter.

The third reason that makes the film outstanding is the rapid flow of the realistic narrative, enabled by an ensemble cast that makes the viewer feel the events on screen could easily happen to the viewer as well, in any geographical context. There is not one moment in the film when the viewer would feel bored. The amazing script enraptures the viewer as a thriller would while the film exudes realism that is easily identifiable and credible.

The fourth reason is that the film’s director Asghar Farhadi seems to have made his best work to date, with each film he has made being progressively an improvement on his previous work. This work finally catapults him to a level where he can rub shoulders with finest of Iranian filmmakers: Mehrjui, Kiarostami, Majidi, Panahi, Naderi, the Makhmalbaf family, and Jalili. The success of this film will definitely help to bring into international limelight the finest of Iranian cinema to audiences who are unaware of its stature.

There is no dull moment in this Asghar Farhadi film. The film opens with a court scene, where a magistrate is only heard on screen, not seen (a craft perfected in a superb Iranian 2004 film by director Mohsen Amiryousefi called Bitter Dream). What is not seen is a deliberate effort by the director to hide the less relevant details and focus instead on the more important.  The magistrate asks Simin (played by the beautiful Leila Hatami, who has played roles for Mehrjui and Kiarostami in the past, and is a daughter of another Iranian film director of repute—Ali Hatami) why does she think her daughter has no future in Iran. The question is not answered by Simin but her body language does. This is the first of the only two overtly political comments that this critic spotted in the film. It is not easy to make an honest film in Iran. Asghar Farhadi seems to walk the tight rope with a panache while others get into trouble with the authorities. 

Nader and Simin: A Separation is a tale of half truths and the impact of these half truths on various individuals, on growing children who look upon their parents as role models, and on relationships of teachers in schools with the parents of their students. It is also a tale of conflicts of class and wealth in society. But most of all,  it is not cinema of escapism, but of reality. The film presents a very real modern day Iran—and this critic has visited Iran on five occasions over two decades on official work related to agriculture, interacting with ordinary citizens, scientists, and a succession of powerful Federal Ministers in that field. Iranians are a very intelligent and admirable people, in spite of the current public intolerance of other faiths. The second evidence of political criticism (if it was meant to be one) in this film that I spotted was the Alzheimer-stricken father of Nader wearing a necktie and being driven in a car in public places in Iran. Why Nader did that is not explained in the film. In Iran, only foreigners wear neckties, as other citizens could face the wrath of the moral police that often terrorize the public.

While much of the film delves into the conflict between two couples--one rich, one poor—arising out of the outraged knee-jerk anger of a loving son (on seeing his father left unattended and fallen on the ground with his hands tied to the bed-rail) expressed towards his female house employee who had neglected her responsibility and stepped out of the house, the film surprises the viewer at every stage like a thriller. A major surprise is when the pivotal figure in the film turns out to be the young girl, Termeh, and not her parents, Nader and Simin, as the title of the film would have led the viewer to believe. Farhadi’s film has made a great leap by allowing a young girl to make the major decision in the film that will affect her parents and eventually her like an adult having watched adults and their behavior. It does not matter what the decision is—what matters is who makes the decision, in a world where the males made all the decisions. (Interestingly, the young girl in the movie is played by Farhadi’s real life daughter.) Ironically, the viewers will recall the film had begun with a woman demanding a better deal for her daughter.  Farhadi has made a film that re-defines the role of women in modern Iran (and why not, when the first Nobel Prize winner in Iran was a woman, Shrin Ebadi!) while men only seem to care and give priority to other men over women (at least in in this cinematic tale).  It is a great film that focuses on women and the girl child in Iran.

Farhadi’s film is one that will have universal acceptance because what is shown on screen will appeal to most viewers worldwide. The performances are truly outstanding. The editing is equally commendable. And for Farhadi to have developed the tale from real life observations the effort is commendable. True to the director’s recent trends in exhibiting improved abilities with each film, I hope the next Farhadi film outdoes this film in overall merit. Farhadi seems to have raised his own bar for his next jump.

P.S. Nader and Simin: A Separation ranks as one of the 10 best films of 2011 for the author. Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly was reviewed earlier on this blog. Iranian films by Mehrjui, Kiarostami, Panahi, Naderi, Amiryousefi, Makhmalbaf, and Majidi have been also been reviewed earlier.

P.P.S. When this author queried blogger MKP at The Film Sufi on the curious necktie scene mentioned above, MKP replied "You make an interesting point, Jugu. Since the Revolution, Iranian authorities and moralizers have endeavored to establish a social norm opposed to men wearing a necktie, which is deemed to be too “Western” and not in alignment with the principles of the Revolution. You do occasionally see some people, particularly in places like Tehran, wearing ties, but they are usually older people whose practices date back to the “old days”, when it was more common among the progressive middle classes. Nader’s allowing his father to wear a necktie would presumably reflect his filial loyalty. And it would also probably subtly underscore the class distinction between his family and that of Razieh in "A Separation" - Asghar Farhadi (2011)"


Anonymous said...

I can't wait to watch the movie

Arnav said...

Just discovered your blog through IMDb, where your review was listed among the critics' for About Elly. I saw A Separation last night and just got done watching About Elly. As happens often with films from Iran, the two films made me think (which is always a rarity these days). The politics of the country does not match up to its culture.

Indian said...

I am an Indian and have watched quite a few Iranian movies, my experience is here