TIFF '11 Review: Manipulative & Melodramatic 'A Separation' Is A Soap Opera Morality Tale

by Kevin Jagernauth
September 9, 2011 12:40 PM
12 Comments
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The fall festival circuit is all about buzz, and while the frontrunners for the awards season can usually be spotted a mile away, it's the sleeper sensations everyone keeps an eye out for now. As Telluride wrapped up this weekend, the Iranian film "A Separation" directed by Asghar Farhadi, began building some serious heat. Thought it has been playing international festivals all summer long and won multiple awards in Berlin earlier this year including the Golden Bear, the very strong word out of Colorado, led by a rave by Jeff Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere -- who admitted to missing the first third of the picture -- put the movie on the schedule for many of the folks headed to Toronto. Believe it or not, the film (as of this date anyway) has even edged into the IMDB Top 250. And now that we've caught up with it we have to ask: did we see a completely different movie?

Strident, frustrating and testing the limits of believability, "A Separation" is a moral fable that doesn't just try to push one button, it mashes all of them down with a clumsy open-palmed hand. When we first meet Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), the latter is arguing in front of a judge for a divorce from her husband. With a visa ready to go that will allow her to leave Iran, she won't take the journey unless she can bring their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) with her, but she needs Nader's consent which he refuses to give. Though he clearly loves his wife, he isn't ready to leave his Alzheimer's-stricken father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) behind. The couple are divided and Simin goes to live with her mother, leaving Nader and Temeh to care for the invalid grandparent. Within Simin no longer able to assist, Nader at work and Temeh in school, help is soon brought in.


Thanks to a tip from Simin, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) a meek, very devout Muslim -- complete with headscarf and full black chador -- who travels two hours each way to take on the job, with a young daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) in tow. The work for her, which requires cleaning the house and more importantly, caring for Nader's father who if left unattended will leave the house or put himself in dangerous situations, is exhausting for the young mother. Moreover, her religious faith leaves her constantly questioning her own actions, and in one scene, she calls for religious guidance to determine if helping the ailing man out of his soiled pants would constitute a sin. But her steadfast faith doesn't seem to be matched with common sense and after a frightening incident in which Nader's father nearly dies, he fires her on the spot, throwing in an accusation of theft on top of it. Razieh is stunned and in the heated confrontation with Nader he pushes her out of his house, she stumbles and falls and seemingly has a miscarriage. That's right, she was pregnant. And soon Nader, Simin, Razieh and her hot-tempered, unemployed husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) are dueling it out in court with charges of murder and neglect countered between the two parties.

On paper, this sets up what could be a great exploration of class inequality, religion, justice and gender but Farhadi's insistence on playing everything in broad strokes seriously hinders the film from achieving any true insight. The legal proceedings that take up a good chunk of the film are a farce and either Iran's justice system is woefully incompetent or we've just seen too many episodes of "Law & Order." As we watch Nader, Razieh and Hodjat argue their cases, obvious questions keep seemingly getting overlooked, with officials not even bothering to check out the scene of the "crime" until well into the proceedings. But worse, the scenes quickly become mere repetitions of screeching speeches by all the talent involved. Farhadi paints a particularly cartoonish portrayal of Razieh and Hodjat, the former as the ultimate Quran-thumping believer whose every sin could send her straight to hell and the latter whose single note of barely contained anger seems to prevent him at any time from having a coherent, logical thought. These characters are so stuck in archetypes that when they keep making boneheaded decisions and poorly justified late reel revelations, they don't feel like organic motivations but rather like chess moves so Farhadi can stay thematically on point.

This absence of nuance is endemic throughout the whole film and the female characters get the worst of it. We've already mentioned Razieh, but Simin too gets far less screen time than she deserves. And that's a shame because the beautiful Leila Hatami has the strongest and most compelling on-screen presence of the entire cast, but she remains sorely underdeveloped, coming off as an opportunist who wants to leave her country rather than as a woman who wants to make a better life for her daughter. There is simply not enough here to fully understand why she is eager to leave what could be called a very comfortable life in Iran for elsewhere (it is rather unconvincingly explained at some point in the film that she has a history of running from her problems; yet another plot point not adequately developed). And indeed, the film is presented so flimsily, one could argue that Farhadi is pushing the conservative idea that women should submit to the requests of their men and stay in an unhappy marriage for the love of God or for their children and always listen to their husbands to prevent the kind of tragedies that unfold here. And though we doubt this is what the film is trying to say, as the movie stumbles toward its climax with a late-stage revelation by Razieh that is borrowed/ripped from Meryl Streep's turn in "Doubt" (and makes little sense as something her god-fearing character would do), it confirms that Farhadi is more interested in continually sensationalizing his upstairs/downstairs battle rather than making it believable.

But though the script may fail them, the acting by the cast across the board is very strong. Nader and Simin are particular highlights, anchoring the film with performances that are more mature than the material they are given, keeping the developments on screen compelling even as they edge closer to soap opera histrionics as the minutes roll by. The child actors are highlights as well and are probably the best-written of the bunch; here Farhadi nicely captures the confused feelings of adolescence and divided parental loyalty with an intelligence we wish we'd found in the rest of the movie.

Somewhere in the midst of all this "A Separation" wants desperately to say something about the hypocrisy of religious fundamentalism, the role of women in Iran and the illusion of middle class comfort but Farhadi can't get his message across in this clamoring, noisy drama. There is a fine line when writing characters who make bad, selfish decisions between making those choices seem real or contrived, and unfortunately Farhadi succumbs to the latter early on and never quite recovers. And worse, he doesn't seem to be aware of the film's failings. The last few minutes are where Farhadi clearly shows a lack of understanding of the obviousness of his story, ending the movie on an ambiguous note that most viewers will see coming a mile off, and which is lingered upon too long by Farhadi, in an effort to lend the scene dramatic weight. It's a sign of a lack of confidence from the director and goes a long way towards explaining why "A Separation" never comes together as the multifaceted, layered look at contemporary life in Iran that it wants be. [C]

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More: Foreign Films, Review, A Separation

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12 Comments

  • Laird Okie | November 14, 2013 12:16 PMReply

    This was a highly insightful review and a healthy antidote to the avalanche of praise
    heaped upon this film. Just saw the film on DVD and liked it quite a lot, but you put your finger on some of the problems with it. Eye-opening review!

  • Par | September 15, 2011 1:10 AMReply

    This film was anything BUT "Manipulative" and "Soap Opera"!! Which soap is as complex and well-crafted as this movie was?

    Farhadi is a genius for making such an amazing movie in Iran despite ALL the limitations! I mean how can you explore the relationship between a husband and wife without having them touch each other? Or who wears Hijab at home?(no one, the actors have to wear them) and YET Farhadi's screenplay is SO AMAZINGLY written that does not let you think about those limitations at all!

    I TOTALLY disagree with this review!

  • Patrick | September 12, 2011 8:36 AMReply

    Herein lies the flaw in your evaluation of the film.

    "The legal proceedings that take up a good chunk of the film are a farce and either Iran’s justice system is woefully incompetent or we’ve just seen too many episodes of “Law & Order.” As we watch Nader, Razieh and Hodjat argue their cases, obvious questions keep seemingly getting overlooked, with officials not even bothering to check out the scene of the “crime” until well into the proceedings. "

    Yes, you have watched too many episodes of "Law and Order" which has left you with the impression that the depiction of a justice system different than the one you may be accustomed to is a plot device that rings false. Just because it doesn't look like what you're used to seeing doesn't make it untrue to the system of justice in Iran.

    Beyond the details of the judicial system, it tells a human story that could take place in several places in the world. The stress of caring for a family member with Alzheimer's, the pain inflicted on a child as her parents separate, the struggle of people in lower economic classes for survival are things to which people outside of Iran can relate.

    I would respectfully isagree with your assessment of this film. From script to performace to direction, it's one of the best films I've seen in the last 5 years.

  • Dan | September 10, 2011 9:42 AMReply

    probably the best film of the year!

  • Cineminion | September 10, 2011 1:57 AMReply

    "Thought it has been playing international festivals all summer long and won multiple awards in Berlin earlier this year including the Golden Bear, the very strong word out of Colorado, led by a rave by Jeff Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere—who admitted to missing the first third of the picture—put the movie on the schedule for many of the folks headed to Toronto."

    You're kidding, right? I kind of think winning the Golden Bear is why people want to see it.

  • MDL | September 9, 2011 6:48 AMReply

    This is the first negative review I have read or heard about this film. Most of the folks I trust have recommended it highly. I look forward to it.

  • AR | September 9, 2011 5:22 AMReply

    "Somewhere in the midst of all this “A Separation” wants desperately to say something about the hypocrisy of religious fundamentalism, the role of women in Iran and the illusion of middle class comfort but Farhadi can’t get his message across in this clamoring, noisy drama."
    None of the themes you've mentioned are supposed to be issued in this movie. It's just a movie about a dishonesty of middle class and yes, It is manipulative. Your point about Razieh and her husband is completely legitimate. But you completely misunderstand Simin's situation. It's true that we never fully understand the reason of her leaving and Farhady has a very reactionary point of view about family but the real reason of ambiguity is CENSORSHIP! I live in Iran. Even though this movie has zero political or sexual innuendo and is permitted to be shown in Iran's theaters, Still it's passionately hated by government cultural officials and Pro government Extremists. One of their reasons is exactly the opposite of what you've mentioned about Simin.They say her leaving indicates that Iran is not a good country to live in and every Iranian is a liar. Now imagine if filmmakers wanted to talk about the day and night discrimination against citizens and especially women. "separation" is a weak movie because it's made in an atmosphere that you can't possibly make a good movie unless you're a genius. By the way Iran's legal system is worse, much worse than what you see in here.

  • Cobraverde | September 9, 2011 4:24 AMReply

    This is the finest new film I've seen all year. I started watching it casually while I eating my lunch in the projection booth. I couldn't take my eyes off it. Your allegiance keeps shifting from character to character as the story unfolds. Superb acting and a riveting piece of writing. Highly recommended.

  • Caspar | September 9, 2011 1:43 AMReply

    I'm so surprised you didn't like it; it's probably my film of the year. I thought it was intelligent, balanced, captivating and incredibly moving, and beautifully acted and devised throughout. We evidently did see a different film.

  • Erik | September 9, 2011 1:32 AMReply

    Also, Kevin, I think the trouble you had with suspension of disbelief regarding the Iranian justice system is not a slight on the film itself. From all accounts I've heard, the film is an extremely incisive and realistic portrayal of Iranian society.

  • Stephen | September 9, 2011 1:25 AMReply

    Really surprised here. I've read dozens of reviews of this film, all of which have been over-the-top raves. Interesting to hear a dissenting voice. Will be seeing it at NYFF in a few weeks.

  • Erik | September 9, 2011 1:13 AMReply

    I think we did see a completely different movie.

    Obviously all reviews are subjective and I can't reasonably claim that you're wrong here, but I think A Separation is the best movie I've seen all year and Farhadi is an extremely gifted filmmaker. I like this blog but I swear, sometimes I really can't see where you guys are coming from.

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