Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Unraveling the Layers of "A Separation"

Yesterday, the Movies and Meaning group that I've participated in since last summer decided to see the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner from Iran, A Separation. I was on the fence about this one. The plot summaries I've read didn't sell the movie to me. I just didn't think it sounded interesting. Also, I have just seen four foreign films at the Portland International Film Festival, so I'm kind of "foreign film'd out" for the moment. What did grab my attention, though, were the movie reviews I did see in various papers and magazines. There was a consistency in that reviewers really like this movie. While I don't often trust the movie reviews (I've been suckered in to see a few critically acclaimed films that I ended up hating), I figured that at least this will give me a glimpse into life in Iran. I've never seen an Iranian film before, so there's that. And, I figure the discussion afterwards might be interesting.

I got to use up the last of my Regal Cinema gift card that I got for my birthday (which I used to see The Iron Lady, A Dangerous Method, and paid for half of this ticket). My Regal Cinema card that counts my points gave me a free small soda and since it was Tuesday, I got a coupon for a small popcorn for $2. What a deal!

From the opening scene, I was drawn in. The couple are arguing before the judge in a small room. The wife wants to move abroad and went through all the trouble to get a visa and make arrangements but her husband refuses to go. He claims that he cannot go because his elderly father has alzheimer's, so who would take care of him? That's a valid point. If he won't go with her, then she wants a divorce. However, divorce is difficult to get in the Islamic Republic of Iran. To make matters even more difficult, their 11 year old daughter does not want to go with her mother, and her mother does not want to go without her daughter. Oh the dilemma!

The wife moves out of the house, which requires the husband to hire someone to help watch his father during the day while he's at work. A woman who wears a full black chador shows up and gets hired, but under the condition that her husband doesn't find out about it. Apparently in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a woman cannot get a job without her husband's approval, and her jealous, hot-tempered husband would definitely not allow her to be alone in the home of a man who was separated from his wife and living "like a bachelor."

As the movie moves along, more complications get added to the storyline and both families end up facing a judge to address charges and counter-charges. To reveal what these issues are is to deprive the reader of this blog post the joy of discovery in watching the film for themselves. A Separation is a great example of masterful storytelling, as it builds in intensity with each new morsel of information. What it boils down to is the lies we tell to ourselves or others because the truth might make life more difficult for the person. Lies to protect others. Lies to protect self. Lies that hurt the other's credibility. And if the truth won't set you free, is it okay to tell a lie?

The film is meant to be a clash of what political geographers like to call "cross-cutting cleavages." We have the conflict between the wife and husband in both couples; the conflict between father and daughter; the conflict between an educated upper-class family and a religious lower-class family; the conflict between men and women in a patriarchal society; the conflict between truth and lies, especially in the court system where the case manager's job is to discern who is telling the truth.

The actor who plays the main character does a phenomenal job and kind of resembles Australian actor Eric Bana. His beautiful wife desperately wants to leave Iran, with her daughter. The daughter (played by the director's actual daughter) indicates in the film that she decided to stay with the father because it was the only way to keep her mother from moving abroad. Throughout the film, she keeps trying to get her father to ask her mother to stay, but he's too proud.

One scene that really stood out for me was when the hired help saw that the elderly man with alzheimer's had wet his pants and the sofa that he was sleeping on, she called someone for religious advice since men and women aren't allowed to see the naked flesh of the opposite gender (except their spouse). It struck me because this seemed like a common sense thing that needs no phone calls to one's religious authority. Someone had an accident and needs help, she's the only one available. How complicated is that? It's not like anyone would get sexually aroused by cleaning up an elderly, overweight person's body. When my dad was a nurse, he told me about the sponge baths he had to give elderly patients and one senile old lady kept accusing him of making inappropriate contact. One of many reasons why I'd never want to be a nurse!

The religiosity of the hired help shows itself in quite a few ways. She is willing to lie about an event she claims happened to her, but when she called her religious authority figure about the spiritual price for accepting a settlement offer to close the case, she learns that taking the money would be a sin. This creates a conflict with her husband, who needs the money to pay off his debts to creditors. She refuses to swear an oath on the Qur'an that her story is true. Interesting that she was willing to lie to a judge and to another man's wife, but when faced with the judgement of Allah, she could not bring herself to swear on the Qur'an.

This film has so many layers to unwrap and the audience truly gets drawn in to a drama that shows the universal aspect of human nature when in conflict with others. As someone once pointed out, there are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and The Truth.

The discussion on the film was interesting. One new person showed up and kind of annoyed us. He was an elderly man who listened to everyone's initial impressions of the film in our introductory statement to the group, and boldly said that none of us seems to have gotten the entire point of the film. He heard ambiguity and for him, there was no ambiguity in this film. It was so obvious to him, which he admitted that he had a career as an academic. When he admitted that, I wasn't surprised. The arrogance of academics is off-putting at times. I have encountered more than a few prideful academic types. Yeah, its great that they pursued post-grad educational degrees and taught courses in colleges. But in our Movies and Meaning Group, everyone has an equal right to express their thoughts and feelings about the movies we see. No one is more or less valid than the other. What I love about seeing films with the group are the discussions afterwards. I learn so much from other people's perspectives. For instance, last summer, we saw Terrance Malick's Tree of Life, which I did not know what to think at first. Hearing other people's impressions actually made me want to see it again (I didn't, though, nor will I likely see it again. I found it incredibly boring, with small gems scattered throughout).

When I asked this newcomer what he got out of the film that the rest of us didn't get, he said that he could not explain his thoughts about the movie without first giving us his life history so we could understand where he is coming from. Excuse me?!? Really? Wow. In all the films I've seen in the past (almost) year and the discussions we've had, no one has ever had to share their life history for us to understand what they got out of the film. It really is not necessary. I got the impression the elderly guy was lonely and wanted to connect with people, even with strangers, even if he went about it the wrong way. The facilitator showed remarkable patience for the guy.

The other things that bothered me about his comments was that he had asked twice: why bother seeing a movie if it's all made up? He seemed to imply that if it's not real, then what's the point? The rest of us are fans of movies, particularly the facilitator, who is a minister. He said that for decades, he referenced films in his sermons and that movies are the most popular way of conveying stories to people. Most people don't read the same books any more, so its hard to pick a book where there's a broad cultural knowledge of. Movies, however, do reach a wider audience of people and the visual medium has become a powerful way to represent life and play with metaphors.

Anyhow, the overall consensus seems to be that the majority loved this movie and I was one of those. One elderly lady did not like the movie much because she wanted something "happy." When she said that, I wasn't surprised. I could see on her face that she was not pleased with this movie at all. She wasn't the type I'd expect to ever go see a film like this. But, I loved it and at the end of the discussion, I said, "I hope people in our government watch this film so that they can put the kibosh on any more war talk with Iran. The characters in this film are the kind of people who are going to get killed in any war. Most people around the world just want to live their lives and not harm other people. They deserve that right."

Below is the film's director who gratefully accepted the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film this year. I haven't seen the other nominees in that category, but I have no doubt that the Oscar voters chose the right one to win this prestigious award. I've seen plenty of foreign language films over the years and A Separation would go down as one of the very best. I would not be surprised, though, if an American version gets made. There would have to be some cultural adjustments, but the story itself is universal. It is definitely a film worth seeing and pondering about.

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