Iranians’ age-old wedding song serenades the promise of ‘living happily ever after’ with the words, “Let’s leave this country behind, you and I; you hold my hand and I grab your gown; Be blessed, God willing be blessed.” Most brides do not take this proposition literally. For them a short and memorable honeymoon will do. However, beyond the premise of marriage as a liberating journey away from family trammels, lies the Iranian cultural psyche of redeeming oneself through surrendering one’s worldly possessions in exchange for a better life in a barely knowable elsewhere. Since the Revolution millions of Iranians have left the country – some were compelled, others by choice. Today, an unknown number of malcontent or frightened urbanites contemplate following suit. ‘A Separation’ is the tale of two women: one intent on giving up her belonging, the other set on reclaiming hers.
Farhadi is a gifted author-cinematographer with a deep and admirable insight into his subject material. ‘A Separation’ is a masterfully arranged sequence of snapshots of moments in the life of proximately defined characters in an indeterminate span of time - time-lapse photography without the time stamp. Its characters appear familiar, but none has a résumé. Farhadi is mum about where these characters come from or where they are headed afterward. What he chooses to highlight are only those moments their lives intersect. As a result, his malleable and universally appealing characters are up for grabs by the viewer. He deliberately leaves to the viewer the task of reconstructing a convincing life story for every character, along with meaning and purpose – cinema by proxy, or a ruse to circumvent the censor? It is up to the viewer to imagine both a past and a prospect for each, as well as filling the gaps. And, filling the gaps the viewer does unconsciously. The authorship is shared, and the outcome is an enthusiastically received movie in Iran and abroad – its official entry for Oscar is just the icing on the cake.
‘A Separation’ is both modern and feminist. Farhadi’s endearing characters however, are neither. The film is modern in the way it takes responsibility off the shoulders of family, community, society, government, and foreign or supernatural powers, and smacks it squarely on the forehead of the individual – a cultural coup d’état for Iranians. In ‘A Separation’, it is the individual who makes – or, can make – bad choices, and it is mostly the individual who pays for the choices made – victimhood is discounted. The main themes of the movie are human’s fallibility and hazards of expediency; or, in Farhadi’s own words, the film is about “human agency” and its limitations. The three main characters are accidental dissemblers; the forth is a hapless opportunist; and the fifth is given “freedom” to choose only a part of the whole she is naturally entitled to – a theme reminiscent of Sophie’s choice.
It is also a uniquely feminist film. The only pro-active characters in the movie are two working women (Simin and Razieh) – they are the ones who take risk hoping to better their lot; the other character conferred with the prerogative of choice (Termeh) is also a woman in the making. The remaining characters (mostly adult men) are all passive/reactive type – content and complacent (e.g. Nader and his father) or irrational, emotional and close-minded (Hodjat), whose apparently predestined lives are not expected to change any time soon, unless by those women. More intriguingly, while on surface ‘A Separation’ is a movie about the dissolution of marriage between a man and a women (the Persian title), the underlying drama is about the socio-cultural divide between the two women - which comes to light when Razieh is hired to replace Simin in providing care for the elderly man, even though she clearly lacks the necessary qualification for performing the task she is hired for.
In their own ways, both women are rebels and taboo breakers. One, educated and well off, breaks her marriage and endangers the future of her daughter for the mirage of a haven abroad. The other, poor and pregnant, drags her young child across the city’s never-repaired south-north chasm, to work for a now-single man without her husband’s knowledge, let alone his consent. Understandably, the viewer may sympathize with one or both of these women. Their acts may be seen as forms of protest against the status quo (or in Simin’s words, “the conditions”). One may regard either or both as the harbinger of a future to come. However, defiant is not a synonym for modern. If it were, then every adolescent who puts his parental home behind, every worker who resigns from his/her job, every deserter who leaves the front, would be modern.
Farhadi is a play-by-play announcer of the on going game his characters play, who has prudently chosen to report very little about what is happening outside and beyond his arena. The viewer is left to measure the pulse of the surrounding environment from what is shown on the screen, or even speculate about the grander scheme of the things by his/her own whim. One can only guess what is awaiting these women. If Simin wins her custody fight, one can hope that she will take with them her sense of independence and determination. To succeed as a single mother in a foreign land she will need them both. One can also wonder whether Razieh will try again. One can be assured though, that there are many Raziehs around. There must be. The future of Iran and its 200-year-old modernity project depends on those who strive.
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