Thursday, March 15, 2012

“A Separation”: The Best Family Drama of the Year

Through the Streets of Tehran
     The Best Foreign Film Oscar was very deservedly awarded to A Separation from Iran a couple of weeks ago.  It’s akin to when The Lives of Others won five years ago, i.e. the arguably best movie of the year was not in English.  It begins simply with a middle-class housewife deciding to leave her husband and daughter because he doesn’t want to use their hard won
visas to temporarily leave Iran.  He also refuses a divorce.  Before a viewer assumes that he’s an arrogant, patriarchal ass, he explains that his father, who lives with the family – in fact, the apartment in which they live might be the father’s – has Alzheimer’s and cannot be left. 

     I don’t want to explicate the plot here because when I did so right after seeing the movie last week, one friend said “why should I care enough to read a movie for over two hours?”  Taking out my inadequate regurgitation of what happened, that question reflects a larger issue, which is that there are nowhere near as many foreign language movies shown regularly in cinemas nowadays as compared to fifty years ago.  A related issue is that foreign movies are now always subtitled, thereby preserving the integrity of the performances, but requiring the viewers to put in a greater effort to read, whereas major Italian directors of the ‘50s and ‘60s thought nothing of dubbing.  However, the plot moves like a quiet thriller, revealing layers of the current sociopolitical life in Iran.  With each narrative movement that broadens the cultural context, the viewer’s reaction to each of the main characters becomes simultaneously deeper and more ambivalent.

     What was most heartening about afternoon showing at the Esquire was that it was the most quiet and attentive audience I can remember since Shortbus.  The audience didn’t move during the end credits, which were in Persian, mainly because people were hoping to see one of the major characters make a significant choice. The final image, which is a sustained shot, shows a man and a woman on either side of an open glass doorway in a hallway where there is continual tension and some commotion.  The man sits in front of the glass and seems as if he could move away.  The woman is framed behind the glass and seems stuck there.  The shot sums up much of the culture the viewer has seen.  It was so arresting that I turned to Neil and said, “Why is no one leaving?  How many people here can read Persian?”

     We saw this movie the day after seeing a DVR of Kramer vs. Kramer.  At first, it seemed similar to that earlier movie because a wife and mother reaches such a pitch of despair that she’s ready to throw away her family to fulfill herself.  In both cases, the husband is as much a product of the patriarchal society as the wife and is more decent than he appears at first.  But there the comparison ends because the American movie does not portray a female who has to commute for two hours with her four year old daughter to work an underpaid domestic job that she doesn’t tell her husband about, though she needs his permission culturally to continue in it.  When she has the chance to settle her husband’s debts, her ethics keep her from doing so.  It’s that complexity which turns a neorealist document into a work of art.  One intriguing element is the sound design.  Whenever a character is stressed, the camera takes on her/his point of view and the sound cuts away until the moment passes.

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