Looking is Purposeful – On a Recent Film

Of recent my colleague (Frank Kantor) and I have been checking out new films at Renoir (http://www.curzoncinemas.com/cinemas/renoir/) after work. One of our recent viewing is the fascinating film, A Separation by the Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi. The film is about a married couple, in a complex relationship, who become separated. The consequences are quite intense as plot unravels, laying bare personal, social and national fissures in the Iranian context. The film is loaded with multiple layers of interpretative possibilities, depending on viewers perspective, socialisation and world view. I am struck by the way in which this film never allowed me the viewer to come to any final judgement on its characters. My view of the characters kept shifting and I was pulled in every direction in responding to the protagonists.

After 14 years of marriage Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) seem to want to separate. Their flat is shared with their teenage daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) and the father of Nader who suffers from Alzheimer’s and as such demands fulltime care. Simin wishes to leave Iran (perhaps to move away from the restrictive nature of her theocratic world). Nader is unable to leave because of his love for his father and perhaps the religious obligations placed on him as a son and a male. It is interesting that while there were no obvious pointers that these were devout Muslims, the fact of Islamic laws dictating the whole of their lives is very evident.

This tension opens up the film with the couple appearing before a magistrate seeking permission to divorce. It is not insignificant that viewers can only hear the voice of the magistrate as the couple faces the camera and the viewers: this is crucial as one felt as if they were before us making their case. As the film progresses it becomes evident that it is quite a complex case. When Simin and Nader part, and Simin leaves to live with her mother, a dilemma – in view of class, gender roles and religious beliefs- presented itself: who will do the work of cleaning, preparing meals and looking after Nader’s father? Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a woman (and her small daughter whom brings to work every day), is employed. It was tough going for Razieh, having to commute a long distance, carry out menial tasks, and the looking after a confused and incontinent old man. This was compounded by the fact that she was pregnant, apparently unknown to her employer

 It was evident to viewers that something was about to happen, that confrontation was evident. Tensions were all around: between the couple, as Nader struggling to care for his father after work, while working with his teenage daughter on her lessons; Razieh struggling with the demands of the work The situation exploded when Nader upon return from work found that Razieh and her child gone, his father lying almost dead on the floor, with a hand tied to his bed, and money missing. Razieh was in fact by her doctor as she got hit by a car some days before, while trying to get the father who wandered into the streets. Upon her return Nader angrily asked her leave and pushed her out of the house. She eventually slipped on the steps and had miscarriage, which Nader only later learnt. The tension continued as he was hauled before the courts charged with the murder of an unborn child.

All these claims are heard by harassed, tired, concerned officials oppressed by the knowledge that there are no easy answers. Despite denunciations flying to and fro and grudges being nursed all sides (because of gender class and religious belief) it becomes evident to viewers that truth is elusive and complex. Where will the compromise and face-saving happen to heal the tensions and brokenness? The women in the film are able to see the need for this! Patriarchy, privilege and honour have blinded the men. In the end, Termeh (the daughter) is the key. She sees everything: she deploys her father’s own principles to get him to see his wrong. She carries an unspeakable burden – both judicial and moral – having to decide before the court with whom she wishes to live. The movie ends with her request that her parents leave the room as she discloses to the magistrate her decision. Viewers are left guessing as to how she decides…

This is a great film, with the director turning a petty and at times intense quarrel into a contemporary, national and larger tragedy. Here class matters, as do gender and the religious laws. It is a patriarchal world firmly gripped in a religious system that looks rigid. The reality is that it is constantly shifting, even imploding within. The film may be about fractured relationships, religion/faith in a theocratic context, the politics of identity (gender, sex and social standing), and existential realities of life in Iran. It certainly offer vistas into the beauty and ugliness of issues in Iranian society and the complex ways these are managed, negotiated and dealt with. At the same time, the writer/director may be subtly parodying Iran’s alienation within and without, scattered with questions about theology and the restrictive nature of a State. It is possible that A Separation is signifying on a complex set of fissures facing all: class and gender divisions, generational gaps, the nature of family relationships, and around the suffocating proclivities of a theocratic state? And while the film is about life in Iran, as a viewer outside of that context, I sense that it is also making a statement about the interconnectedness of human ambiguities, and the complex nature of the societies we all live in.

Writing on “film art”, Bordwell and Thompson (1990:141) note: “Looking is purposeful; what we look at is guided by our assumptions and expectations about what to look for.” I submit that there is no ideal spectator vis à vis this film. There is the possibility of differentiated and multiple spectator positions. Hence, I make no claim about ‘objectivity’ with regard to my ‘take’ on this film and it would be interesting to hear what my colleague saw!

copyright © August 1, 2011

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