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 Moneyball’s “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.