Disclaimer: Some time ago I promised my non-French-speaking friends (and myself) to try and translate my blog in English. I just found the time and courage to do so, knowing all too well that many subtleties, digressions and puns might get lost in translation - as fluent as my English can be, I'm not a native speaker and I don't pretend to be one. Just as I'm not a professional movie critic and don't pretend to be one.
La version française de ce post est disponible ici.
Iran. The marriage of Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) is bursting at the seams. She wants to divorce because her husband is opposing her project to go live in Canada with their teenage daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). If you want to leave it means that you don't want to be with me anymore, I'm not holding you back, he says. If you are denying us the chance to make a better life for ourselves outside of Iran, then you don't really love us and this is why I want to divorce you, she says. Right from the start their visions are irreconcilable - during the hearing the judge can't bring them to an agreement. From this moment on the movie is going to display their respective strategies in this private game of power as well as the gradual contamination of their environment by the consequences.
And soon the consequences start unravelling before our eyes, mercilessly. After the hearing Simin moves out from the family home, leaving Nader alone to care for his father who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Nader has no other choice than to ask Razieh (Sareh Bayat), the cleaning lady, to help him out - paying no mind to the possibility that the extra work could be too demanding for a pregnant woman. One more thing that Nader does not take into consideration and that definitely sets the cogwheels of disaster in motion: Razieh is very pious. In an Iranian society that is plagued with religious interdictions, such a disposition is bound to conflict with the young woman's position as the employee of a (technically) single man, in charge of keeping in check an old man's incontinence. To make things worse, Razieh has never told her husband, the bad-tempered and impecunious Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), that she is working to help pay off their debts.
As a result of these circumstances left unsaid, the tensions that have been accumulating in the background of the story brutally overwhelm both Razieh and Nader: he finds evidence that she has not been taking good care of his father (or so he thinks), gets angry and pushes her down the stairs. Razieh loses her baby soon after this incident, which is equivalent to a murder provided Nader knew that his employee was pregnant - the demonstration of his guilt leading to him serving time and paying a considerable indemnity to the grieving parents. But could he possibly know, considering that Razieh, being the imam-fearing woman that she is, did her best to avoid him whenever he was home, and in any case never appeared to him without being wrapped from head to toes in an ample chador?
Whenever a movie is a little too conspicuously singled out as the big winner in the main film festivals and throughout the awards season, I get tense. It's not as if I didn't like success - although having issues with someone else's achievements and bitching about it is a French problem, I'm told. Really, what concerns me is that too much unanimity looks like juries are merely following the current trend. That being said, it does not deter me from seeing the movie in question once it hits the screen. Sometimes, as in the case of Fatih Akin's The edge of heaven, my suspicions are justified. I can understand how intellectually satisfying it must be to reward a film depicting the complex relationship between German and Turkish immigrants in modern Germany through the intertwined stories of two mother-daughter pairs... but the Award for Best Scenario at the Cannes Festival, seriously? Not for something so clumsily written that it actually ends with the motherless daughter falling into the arms of the daughterless mother (and I swear that I'm not making this up). I could also refer to Laurent Cantet's The class or Terrence Malick's The tree of life, both of them having received the Palme d'Or while neither of them can be regarded as the best effort of their respective directors.
And along comes A separation, which made a clean sweep off at the Berlin Film Festival (Golden Bear for Best Film, and two Silver Bears, one for the masculine cast and one for the feminine cast so nobody is cheated). And I won't mince my words (I know you've been holding your breath all along while reading these lines), it's a terrific movie. All I can do is take my hat off (and it's a genuine Panama hat, mind you) to the uncannily well-crafted writing, which cleverly mixes the intimate tragedy of this couple where each party manipulates the other to win the war of attrition that is their separation, and the wider tragedy of Iran where everyone is silenced under the combined influence of religious zealots and poverty, paralyzed when faced with the slightest threat on their tiny liberties. The rigorous direction progressively sheds a harsh light on the compromissions and the lies that tear the characters apart as a result. Although the story is complex the attention of the audience never gets a chance to wander away from the interrogation at the heart, until the end. The acting is flawless (down to the smallest roles) and fully warrants the awards. Not one of the characters can be called a scoundrel, not one is totally a victim, they all cheat and lie because it's the only way they can deal with the fear pervading their lives but nobody wins at the end - least of all the young Termeh whose innocence got damaged beyond repair.