Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Separation

I just got around to seeing this wonderful Iranian film (in video).  This comment will be semi-spoiler, so read at your own risk.

It is fundamentally a work of social criticism, in the realist tradition of European class and American racial dramas.  Its target is the criminal justice system of Iran, in particular two elements.  First, the law recognizes the personhood of a fetus, so that every miscarriage is a potential act of murder.  Second, criminal cases are regarded as conflicts between plaintiffs and defendants in the same way as civil cases; it is not “the state versus me” but “you versus me”, and I can get you to drop charges by bribing you.  Put these two together and you get the possibility of legalized extortion, as portrayed in the film.

You could make a dull, didactic movie that made this argument, but if you had the talent you could make something as wonderful as “A Separation”.  Its virtues are the virtues of the best realism in general.  It doesn't preach but shows.  The truth is read on the faces of its characters, not proclaimed in speeches.  The characters are symbolic (avoidance versus stubborn resistance), but they are complex, and the line between what is admirable and regrettable is ambiguous.  Above all, the film is rich with the particularity of realism: the physical details of a hearing room, the sounds of groups of people milling in a waiting area, the long moments of waiting that occur even in the midst of life-changing events.

The central point of view largely belongs to the eleven year-old daughter of the separating couple.  It is through her eyes (literally) that you see the truth that it is the measure of an unjust system that it compels you to act dishonestly.  The film ends with a question posed to the viewer, whether to fight or flee, but in the form of the daughter’s choice of custody, and you feel, as she does, that the choice itself is unfair.

In case it isn’t already clear, the film is technically and stylistically near-perfect.  The camera angles are just the right mixture of naturalistic and disorienting, the pacing is taut but never rushed, and the acting is thoroughly convincing.  It is gripping to watch, a film you would find fascinating even if it had no point to make.  I wish, at this time of enormous economic injustice, we could have a film that treats class in America with the same clarity, drama and artistic integrity.

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