The Films of 2011: A Separation

Recently Michael Phillips, writing about the year in film, hailed The Tree of Life and Melancholia as “films made by filmmakers, not guns for hire or directors who don’t think cinematically.  Directors who don’t think cinematically sadly account for most of the movies we see all year.”  I agree.  So I was disheartened to hear him go on to praise Moneyballs “remarkable subtlety and grace,” along with A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi), which might best be described as the hot new film from Iran.  It’s a well-made but finally dull moral dilemma film about a husband who hires a caregiver to watch over his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father after his discontented wife moves out of the house.  A heated altercation leads to a complicated legal battle between the caregiver’s family and the husband’s: the adults pass the blame back and forth between one another, while their daughters look on, wide-eyed, quickly wising up to their parents’ lies and frailties.

The first thirty minutes or so of A Separation are wonderfully suspenseful, as the nurse (Sareh Bayat), with four-year-old in tow, tries to look after her elderly charge, who is given to pants-wetting accidents and wandering out of the apartment.  Frazzled, she’s barely up to the job; the master of the house (Peyman Moadi), desperate for someone to look after his father, is coolly unsympathetic to her frustration.  We know something bad is going to happen, but we don’t know what it will be.  But after it does happen, the movie loses much of its dramatic momentum: it becomes a series of heated conversations in which the same points are verbally gone over again and again.  While well-acted by a talented cast, the characters aren’t drawn sharply enough; they’re reduced to talking heads, representing different sides of an argument that lasts for the remaining ninety minutes of the film.  Though much of the film isn’t literally set in court (though some of it is), it falls prey to the fate of so many courtroom dramas, in that it’s taken up with too many scenes of people repeating their versions of what they believe to be the truth, without keeping us invested in why we should care about what happens to them.

The film’s appeal to most critics—who thus far have been unanimous in their praise—must surely lie in its cultural novelty.  If an understated courtroom drama about a dispute arising between a man and his domestic employee had been made in America, would it be sweeping up so many accolades?  I doubt it.  I can’t help but suspect that some of the appeal of A Separation lies in its exoticism and its “relevance,” in the same way that films from the Middle East became fashionable with liberal audiences in the wake of 9/11.  A Separation is being lauded, but in hushed tones, as if it's above reproach and to offer any criticism of it would be culturally insensitive.  As a subtle slice-of-life drama about modern-day Iran, A Separation deserves respect and quiet praise.  But it didn’t leave me with much to think about. 

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