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R. R. Reno, Editor
New art works animated by sincere piety are rare in the United States. Still rarer are voices that do not see Islam as a minority protected from oppression or a dangerous threat to American liberty, but instead as a moral-theological system whose insights are relevant to contemporary domestic life. It’s unsurprising, then, that despite the critical adulation received by Ashgar Farhadi’s new film, A Separation, its reviewers seem to have missed that the film is work of sincere religious conviction.
The film has won universal critical favor for its formal qualities and vivid presentation of domestic and public life in contemporary Iran, but its most important cinematic virtue, and the key to understanding its moral vision, is its realism. Realism has been an on-again, off-again enthusiasm of “art cinema” since Ozu and Renoir, at least, but realism in A Separation, as for those old greats, is more than stylistic. It serves a particular purpose, revealed by the film’s first scene: A husband and wife face the camera directly and ask a judge, implicitly placed among the audience, to grant a divorce. The intent is clear; we are not supposed to evaluate the work impassively, but are called upon to judge, or rather to join Farhadi in judging, the action on screen.
As a judge must view the facts of a case impartially, however, the director must present them without prejudice. Which is not to say that Farhadi prescinds from judgment himself. On the contrary, his unsparing moral vision and the very ferocity of his condemnation, are only made possible by the complete impartiality of his cinematic vision. A Separation is the work of someone who believes that reality itself has a moral structure, and therefore absolute clarity is sufficient to vindicate the righteous and condemn the unjust.
Mostly condemn, in Farhadi’s case. One man brags, trumpets his own self-righteousness and loses his temper. Another threatens violence and bullies his wife. Women lie and recant. The rich are accused of impiety, the poor of brutishness. At the same time we come to understand that the characters are not without virtue. The story of A Separation is how the little leaven spoils the loaf.
A legal thriller advances the plot. The husband and wife seeking a divorce have separated; the wife has gone to her parents’, leaving the husband, their daughter, and the husband’s father, who has advanced Alzheimer’s, in the familial apartment. The father hires a pious woman to take care of his father as he goes to work and shuttles his daughter to and from school. The stressful situation erupts into conflict when the husband discovers that the woman he hires has left his father alone in the apartment while he’s at work. A murder charge arises from this conflict, and much of what follows revolves around the details of calling witnesses and giving testimony.
While all of this is happening, Farhadi never permits us to forget that above all the film is about the slow dissolution of a marriage. The titular separation happens slowly but never inevitably. Again and again, the possibility of reconciliation, forgiveness, and grace are offered to the couple. It is always within the power of the husband to end with a single act of humility the exile of his wife and his daughter’s unhappiness. Few directors have portrayed the minutia of moral decision so accurately.
Because the film is focused on domestic drama, the political questions that Americans will bring to the film seem oddly unaddressed. It should not be thought that Farhadi does this on purpose, as if to make a political film by negation. This is especially important by contrast with more famous Iranian directors, especially Jafar Panahi, whose recent work This is Not a Film is meant to be something quite like a purely negative political film.
Sometimes critics of domestic, moral works claim that they are politically quietist -- that they counsel resignation when they should encourage resistance—but in reality the opposite is true. Nothing is more fatal to injustice than telling the truth. A film that that tells the truth about the injustice of a lying, obstinate father does not spare the injustice of a regime that executes political prisoners and subjects religious minorities to systematic persecution, no matter how politically inert the film may seem to be.
For Farhadi, it's enough to show how small lies can corrupt character, how vices unresisted can rapidly undermine relationships constructed over a lifetime, how even apparently victimless wrongs are intimately tied to injustice, and how the victims of that injustice are usually the most innocent. The piety of the film is at its most devastating here. A Separation should discomfort an Iranian regime whose injustices are well known. But it should also discomfort a different audience: we who indulge our vices, fail to confront our sins, and prefer the suffering of the innocent to the mortification of our pride.
David Schaengold lives in New York.
Eve Tushnet, The Impossibility of Divorce: A Review of “A Separation”
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