December 30, 2011 [A Separation]

All I knew about A Separation was that it is an Iranian film about a husband and wife who separate; she leaves the country, they have difficulties, we get to explore Iran's sense of itself and its place in the world.

Some of that happens, but A Separation is not, of course, political; as with the cinema of any repressive society—Poland under the Soviets, China just about any time during the twentieth century, the U.S. during the 1950s—social issues are coded as personal problems. The wife says she cannot live in Iran any more; her reasons are not explicit. They have a young teenaged daughter, and the wife won't leave Iran unless the daughter goes with her. The girl won't leave her father and grandfather, who suffers from Alzheimer's, and so the wife stays in Iran, while her work visa nears its expiration date.

The politics of such a separation, though, are almost completely submerged beneath the personal difficulties it generates. The husband needs a caretaker for his father, hires a woman who's pregnant. She has difficulties with the father—there's a scene in which he soils himself and she needs to call a religious authority to see if it's permissible to touch him—and she ties the father to his bed while she leaves for long-undisclosed (but tragic) reasons—which set off her own husband, who is desperately anxious and disappointed, and so quick to violent anger.  The daughter, bookish and sweet, is naturally conflicted and miserable—and the husband grows frantic trying to juggle everyone's needs and issues, not the least his own.

And that's only the barest sketch of the plot. This could be one heckuva Lifetime movie, it's so full of incident and anguish. It generates a deep commitment to keep watching, a real instance of I-wanna-see-how-it-turns-out. And you know, forget Lifetime; this would've been at home in the 1950s, somewhere in the vicinity of Douglas Sirk—even with its ground-level film style, the camera close, bumping into the characters, handheld and intimate—or pulling back out of respect for their privacy—A Separation echoes those opulent Technicolor weepers, in which hysteria and panic seem the response of choice—and rightly so, the lives they lead are so hectically unhappy.

Jim, whose education as an historian allows him to grasp the Big Picture quickly, is fond of saying that, if you want to rejuvenate an American neighborhood, fill it with refugees from totalitarian states. Well, A Separation doesn't emigrate anyone, but it shows me once more that Iran's dour politics create what Scorsese calls "smugglers": filmmakers who cannot always say what they think, but can show us what it means. Iran's rich film culture, then, may depend on the restrictions of its politics. Not to be flippant, but I've always noticed that the real test of a comedian's talents is to work clean. He/she is censored, but that censorship becomes an opportunity to look more deeply into the things everyone sees, and to show it back to them more clearly. In the case of A Separation, it's sad because it's true.

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