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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: A Separation



A SEPARATION (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) (Four Stars)

Iran: Asghar Farhadi, 2011 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

Movies can open up a whole world for audiences, revealing even the most remote people and places. That’s especially true of movues like A Separation, last year’s much-praised, much-awarded foreign language Oscar-winner from Iran. This engrossing human drama and mystery story, a “detective story without a detective,” according to director-writer-producer Asghar Farhadi, brings us close to a country and a culture that many Americans find strange, unapproachable, even dangerous.

But it’s the political bosses and tyrants and their abuses of power who make a country menacing: twisted “supreme leaders”  like Iran’s benighted Holocaust-denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and not the simple middle and lower class Tehran citizens  we see here, or the great Iranian filmmakers like Farhadi and Abbas Kiarostami who tell their stories. These people — troubled couple Nader and Simin and their family, and their employee Razieh and her family –are more like most of us, and our neighbors. They have simple family and economic problems like ours. The Iranian cinema, at least since the 1970s and the advent of major world filmmakers like Kiarostami, Dariush Mehrjui, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Majid Majidi and Jafar Panahi, has excelled at showing these kinds of people and this kind of story: simply made, lyrical, realistic, true.

Farhadi’s film, set in contemporary Tehran  — the Iranian title is closer to “The Separation of Nader and Simin” — gives us the pleasures of a vividly detailed, extremely well-acted humanistic domestic drama, along with the riveting twists of an intricate mystery and trial thriller, with an immaculately worked out plot that keeps twisting and swerving in unexpected directions. Good mystery stories please us because they imply that the world, no matter how deviously it’s been abused or attacked, can be perceived, and the moral order restored (or at least understood). Here, in A Separation, the central characters are part of two families who cross paths, disastrously. The first group includes  a middle class, intellectual Iranian couple, Nader and Simin (played by Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami), and their little daughter Termeh (played by Farhadi’s daughter Sarina) and Nader’s Alzheimer’s-stricken father  (played by Ali-Asghar Shambazi), all caught up in a messy separation — which neither of the parents really desires.

The more modern free-thinking Simin wants to move to the West, and she wants her husband and daughter to go with her. Nader, who knows his father can’t be moved, won’t leave him. Both parents think Termeh should stay with them, though Termeh chooses her father. The family is torn by this conflict, and the case is now in the hands of an interrogating judge (Barak Karimi), whom we feel is probably more sympathetic to Nader.

It’s a difficult case. Most Western audiences, from the countries that deluged A Separation with awards, would probably sympathize more with Simin’s desire to leave. But they’d also feel for Nader, a loving son, who won’t desert his father, even as dementia robs him of his personality. (“He doesn’t even know you’re his son,” Simin argues, and Nader replies that “I know he’s my father.“)

While the case is pieced together, another story develops. Because his father’s dementia is worsening, and because he has to go to work and Termeh has to go to school, Nader hires a housekeeper/caregiver to help the confused old man during the day.  This is Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who also has a little girl, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) and a hot-tempered, unemployed workman husband, Hodjat (Shahabad Hosseini, who is Kimia‘s real-life father).  Of these seven people, Simin is the most Westernized and liberal, and her well-educated family tends to be moderate. Razieh’s family are common people and devout nuslims, and Hodjat is stridently so.

Something happens that suddenly throws the two groups against each other — and provides another problem for the court. What happened, and why, and how it will affect all of them, is the sum and substance of A Separation, and it makes the movie the equivalent of  a compulsive page-turner of a novel, which is one of the main reasons the film won all those prizes, including the Oscar.

A Separation  is simply made, but it’s not prosaic or conventional. Farhadi’s huge worldwide critical hit, winner of more than 50 international awards, is a richly human drama, touching deeply on issues of religion, class, gender, and old age. It’s a riveting story, a disturbing one, but also, in some ways, reassuring. There is more to Iran, this movie suggests, than Ahmadinejad, fanaticism and fear of war. It’s a country composed of many people, many of whom probably don’t share their leader’s   special insanity.

The strongest points of A Separation are the excellence of the acting and the movie’s open-eyed, open-hearted stance toward all its characters, an attitude reminiscent of Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray.  Liberal American and European movie critics, including Jewish ones,  were undoubtedly delighted to see a calm, humane,  liberal-minded film from Iran, made by a director of temperate mood, high intelligence and no hostility — one who, like  Renoir, is sympathetic to all his characters, even the ones with whom he disagrees, I know I felt that way.

The major influence on the best Iranian films has always been Italian neo-realism, and the film most admired by many of that country’s moviemakers, is said to be Vittorio De Sica’s marvelous lower-class saga Bicycle Thieves, a favorite of mine too — and a film you can see influencing  parts of A Separation. Ironically, the unusual strength of  Iran’s films since 1970 may partly lie in the fact that American movies were long banned from the country, and therefore couldn’t monopolize the market, as they probably would have. So its best filmmakers were able to thrive, to become one of Iran’s main treasures, Farhadi among them. Movies like his poignant Fireworks Wednesday (2006) and A Separation are the result.

Now, the brutal “supreme leader” of Iran and his minions have demonstrated their displeasure. Some of the storytellers are under attack, Kiarostami has left Iran, and Panahi has been prosecuted for disloyalty. It’s a sad development. A great film or any work of art will often outlast a brutal leader though. A small compensation maybe, but a real one.

Extras: Commentary by Farhadi; Featurettes: Birth of a Director, An Evening with Asghar Farhadi.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon