Due to a huge scheduling error on my part, two ‘100 Years in a 100 Films’ articles are due to be published today. However, as luck would have it, my 2011 and 2010 choices both are heavily focused around the same topic, perhaps the biggest subject of our post-9/11 age: Islam. Whereas my 2010 choice is the controversial Chris Morris terrorist comedy ‘Four Lions’, we start with ‘A Separation’, in which the conflict between secularism and Islam is just one of the many complex and interweaving issues addressed.
Just a quick synopsis of the plot tells you a lot about the issues grappled with in this film. Following the eponymous separation from his wife, Nadar (Peyman Moaadi) hires a woman to care for his father who has Alzheimer’s. This woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat) is pregnant, and finds the job more overwhelming then see imagines. One day, having to visit the doctor’s, she ties Nadar’s father to his bed and leaves. Nadar returns to find Razieh gone and his father nearly dead. When Razieh returns, Nadar confronts her, leading to an altercation is which she is partly pushed down the stairs. When Razieh then miscarries later in the day, the film begins to revolve around the messy legal situation as Razieh and her heavily religious husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) accuse Nadar of the murder of their unborn child whilst Nadar accuses Razieh of the neglect and near-killing of his father. All the while, Nadar and his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) are fighting for the custody of their child.
As you can see from this, the Islamic faith is a mere detail in this rich tapestry of dark human emotions that slowly unveils itself throughout the film. However, it is a crucially important one to the film. After all, much of the drama of the film is implicitly or explicitly caused by Razieh and Hodjat’s religious convictions, with Razieh’s constant fear of sin leading to the film’s gripping denouement, and the difference in faith between that couple and the secular divorced Nadar and Simin being the key difference between them.
Morally, the film is as complex as the web of truth and lies spun by the two couples. Although it is critical of an Islam that considers it a sin for Razieh to clean up Nadar’s father after he wets himself, the film ultimately delivers the message that everything that happens in the film is caused by the separation of the title. Director Asghar Farhadi presents us with a modern day Iran broken by its separations, between religion and atheism, appearances and reality, present and past.
How subtly and ingeniously this is done can be seen if we consider how this would be done in America. Although ‘A Separation’ is certainly a melodrama in the traditional Hollywood sense in its heightened emotions and exaggerated sense of tragedy, even the finest of the Hollywood melodramas couldn’t juggle so successfully all of the issues in ‘A Separation’. In fact, this is what stops the film feeling like melodrama. A melodrama would judge all of the characters from one (usually conservative) viewpoint, with heroes and villains. ‘A Separation’, by contrast, comes from the world of Iranian film, a world where (as we will discover in a later installment of this series) documentary is king, beginning with the poetic leper colony documentary ‘The House is Black’ and continuing through the work of Abbas Kiarostami we will cover later and ending at this film, a masterclass in naturalistic acting that keeps the film from straying into hysterical territory.
Many have praised ‘A Separation’ for its timeless portrayal of human emotions, with none other than the great Roger Ebert calling it ‘one of those enduring masterpieces watched decades from now’. However, as is clear by my including it in my list, this is a film that could only have been made when it was made, as Iran recovered from the long step backward under the Ayatollah Khomeini and with his longstanding influence vs. the modern world, a place where people need to divorce and sometimes a woman has to go against the wishes of her husband and demand autonomy – a modern world like America. So, as well as the other separations, we have this split between Western and Eastern values in the film, a split that is the the biggest schism running through this century so far.
Whilst America’s idea of exploring gender politics ends up with the nasty misogyny of ‘Gone Girl’, Iranian filmmakers can explore these issues with subtlety, featuring flawed female characters who aren’t just old stereotypes giving a modern twist. ‘A Separation’ is a film that should be required viewing for any American filmmaker who wants to make work about gender or class or human interaction without doing that oh-so-American thing of pasting your values all over it like reduced price stickers. A film that presents a flawed Muslim character, but his flaws are separate but equal to those of his secular countrymen, and don’t lead him into extremism like in the news narrative we are fed every single day.
And if it sounds like I’ve put my tinfoil hat on now, such is the power of this film to show you how filmmaking should be that it puts similar Western efforts to shame, and argues the case convincingly that the most important (and least Oscar bait-ey) category at the Oscars now is Best Foreign Language Film.
Next: continuing our look at Islam in film, we look at the 2010 terrorism comedy (really) ‘Four Lions’ and discuss the fine line between clever satire and offensiveness that so many films fail to notice. Until then, catch up with the series so far by clicking here >>