Sunday, February 19, 2012

"A Separation"


We forget too easily that people live in Iran, real people with real lives that are much more like ours than we know. They are unified by a a religion, but they are, more than anything, individuals -- and, just like any individual, burdened by the unknowable human heart.

In A Separation, there is a man and a woman, married but at a crossroads. She wants to leave Iran; he once said he would, but now needs to stay. She cannot understand his position. But, then, in A Separation, no one can understand anyone else's position, even if they realize the underlying logic that drives it.

The wife, Simin, leaves her husband, Nader, and their daughter, Termeh. This is the action she has been forced to take. Termeh, too, is forced to make her choice: To stay with her father and her grandfather, who is mostly bedridden by Alzheimer's -- staying with him to the end is what Nader must do; in his mind, there is no option. To help around the house while Simin is gone, Nader hires a caretaker, whose life has forced her to accept this job though she has grave doubts it is suitable for her devout religious beliefs. And then, something happens. We see it happen, but we can't be quite sure of exactly what we've seen. We know the reasons it happens, but that doesn't mean it makes sense.

A Separation then turns from being a domestic drama filled with raw emotion into a courtroom thriller unlike any we've ever seen, taking us into the Iranian legal system, which operates in a fascinating way. Who is at fault? Is there blame? Is there justice? And who can be trusted when everyone, in his or her own way, is telling their truth?

With one surprising exception, no one in A Separation lies. But no one exactly tells the truth, either; they tell their truth, and that's quite a different thing. They want to do what's right -- and that turns out to be the worst thing for everyone.

Did what happened actually happen? That question is answered, but not cleanly, and that's the point in A Separation: No one can know. Try to explain yourself in an unexplainable situation, and you'll see the trouble. Yes, I just let go of her hand for a second to get my wallet, and then ...

For these people in, in this situation, in this moment, everything they do and feel and say makes sense, even -- especially -- the things that don't. But that isn't good enough for the law, which demands an answer, or for the Quran, which insists on obedience.

The trouble is, those things run contrary to the way people are.

In that deeper sense A Separation seems to be saying something about the world, too. Iran and the West are constantly at war, and it is a war that has no end -- because it is a fight about integrity, about which each side's beliefs are better, more worthy; that kind of a war, we see here, is not winnable, certainly not on a personal level, much less a global one. Worse, it can have no end, because no one person, much less a society, can possibly be right about everything, or to do exactly what they should every single moment of every single day. We do stupid things.  We do things that no one else would do. We make mistakes, and we know they are going to be mistakes but we make them anyway -- and shouldn't there be some allowance for that? That is not the way we have set things up.

Acted and directed at all levels with fierce honesty and passion, A Separation is raw, visceral and deeply affecting. The movie is set in a country and culture that is alien to most of us; the emotions and the people it shows us are heartbreakingly familiar.

Viewed on Feb. 18, 2012, at Laemmle Town Center 5

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