After hearing glowing recommendations for the Iranian Oscar winning film The Separation, I have to admit feeling a bit let down when I finally saw it last week. I was never able emotionally engage with this family melodrama, sensing that it too mechanically piled complication upon complication. Nevertheless, film has at least one salutary effect: it humanizes a country that people have blithely talked about bombing.
The separation mentioned in the title involves a wife who either wants her husband to leave his father, who has Alzheimer’s, and travel with her abroad, or grant her a divorce. He chooses the divorce and the resulting difficulties when he no longer has her help in raising their daughter and taking care of his father lead to tragedy. One could perhaps blame the all the problems on the wife (both he and the daughter certainly want to), but he also has a streak of stubborn pride that makes him difficult to live with. Meanwhile the woman that he is paying (not enough) to take care of his father while he is at work has her own set of problems, including a temperamental husband, her small child, and her advanced pregnancy. Iran’s paternalistic laws enter into the drama (women must get permission from their husbands to do things), as do religious imperatives.
Everyone is flawed, no one is entirely honest, a number of the characters break promises and cut moral corners . . . and yet everyone is also presented sympathetically. To quote Jean Renoir from Rules of the Game, “the problem is that everyone has his reasons.” Maybe that is the film’s greatest achievement.
The film is effectively shot documentary cinéma vérité style so that you feel you are present, both in their home and then in the courtroom where everyone ends up. The feeling I had while watching the film may have been like those who first saw Italian neorealist films: a curtain is pulled back from a world that we don’t know much about. After making certain cultural adjustments, we realize we are watching people very much like ourselves.
The movies, of course, are not real life, and just as Italy argued that it wasn’t like the images in neorealist films, I can image Iranians saying the same about Separation. Nevertheless, what we see is not Green Movement protesters or shouting Mullahs or advocates of an Iranian bomb but simple people trying to keep their bearings in difficult circumstances.
And for that reason alone, it’s nice that the film won the Oscar since more people will be introduced to the culture. Iran is not an abstraction that can be demonized. Rather, like all countries, it is a collection of people with a vast array of personalities. May we never forget that.