A filmgoer’s choice

A Separation

Starring Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat and Sarina Farhadi; directed by Asghar Farhadi

Open on a courtroom where two film critics are battling for the critical custody of the opinions of a moviegoer who had just witnessed A Separation, an Iranian film about a family (husband, wife, adolescent daughter, the husband’s Alzheimer-afflicted elderly father), and the housekeeper the husband hires to care for his infirm father when his wife seeks a separation because he rebuffs her demands that they leave his elderly father to go to Europe to improve their daughter’s educational opportunities. The film tracks the difficulties they encounter under these pressures, live their lives, and handle all the complications that come their way.

The moviegoer is on the witness stand and each critic is at their respective lawyers’ tables. The critics are scribbling on pads and reviewing notes while the moviegoer is fidgeting with her hands and glancing forlornly at the two critics. The courtroom is filled with the sounds of spectators murmuring and shuffling. The bailiff loudly announces, “All rise,” as the judge enters, takes her seat, asks everyone to be seated, and begins.

Leila Hatami and Peyman Maadi in A Separation.
© 2011 - Sony Pictures Classics

“This hearing for the case Critic vs. Critic, a custody matter for the heart and mind of movie patron Ms. Jane Doe, is now convened. We are going to continue with the testimony and questioning of Ms. Jane Doe. Are the critics ready to proceed?” Both answer in the affirmative. “Okay. Ms. Doe, you understand that your sworn oath to be honest with your opinions still applies.” After she quietly answers yes, the judge turns to the two critics and is about to issue instructions when Ms. Doe interrupts.

“Your honor, I have a statement I’d like to make before we begin. Would that be alright?” Though irritated by this highly irregular request, the judge relents.

“Your honor, I just wanted to go see this film and enjoy it. It’s filled with interesting and complex concepts about life, family, culture, honor and religion. And yet it’s also very poignant and filled with universal human truths, behaviors and emotions. I just want everyone to enjoy this film as I did. Why do I have to choose between polarized perspectives, as these two critics are demanding? Why can’t we all just enjoy this film and its varied themes on its own terms? How come we have to pick it apart — analyze every aspect and nuance and discern its essential truths? I appreciate these aspects and value them all. Please don’t make me choose between them [nodding towards the two critics at their tables]. I’m imploring you: please stop these proceedings. Let’s all live together as a happy filmgoing unit.”

As the gathered wait in hushed silence for the judge’s response, many think that the judge may actually entertain this impassioned request. But, duty bound to follow established practice and procedure, the judge replies, “I appreciate that this is a difficult and emotionally wrenching experience for you, Ms. Doe. But we have to continue with this proceeding and reach a resolution. A choice has to be made, and you are the only one who can make it.” Ms. Doe dejectedly nods in consent. “Good. Now, let’s begin with Mr. Con Ventional Critic. Please, proceed.”

“Thank you, your honor. Ms. Doe, you know I respect you and your views, don’t you?” Ms. Doe responds with a tentative yes. “You and I have had a long relationship conversing on films, haven’t we?” Ms. Doe whispers yes. “I’ve helped warn you about stuffy art-house films from strange foreign lands with busy subtitles that lack pyrotechnics and superheroes, haven’t I?” Again, she relies with a pensive yes. “And we have frowned upon the modern jittery hand-held camera technique thinking that it’s overused and not needed to give a film an air of realism and tension, haven’t we?” She nods yes. “Well, all that is reflected in this film, isn’t it?” Yes, again. “But I encouraged you to see this film anyway, didn’t I?” Uh-huh. “And isn’t that because it depicts a gripping legal procedural in the style of “Law and Order” wherein the father battles with the housekeeper when he comes home to find that she has abandoned caring for his elderly father and angrily confronts her, which sets off a Rashomon-esque dispute over the truth of what happened? And didn’t you respond to these aspects even though they occur in mysterious Iran — aspects which help give this film a universal appeal as you could envision the efforts by these characters to defend themselves, make a living and protect their family occurring in families here in the United States or any other country? And the investigation for the truth of what happened between the husband and housekeeper keeps us engrossed as we care about these characters and their plight, especially as this separation and legal battle tears at the daughter who loves her parents? And don’t you identify with the daughter as she tries to attend school and…”

“Objection, your honor,” the other critic, Ms. Polly Gressive interjects. “Mr. Ventional is badgering the witness and not letting her respond.”

“Sustained. Mr. Ventional, please let Ms. Doe answer.”

“Sorry, your honor. Ms. Doe, let me put it this way: Didn’t you relate to this film because you can identify with it, find the plot and story familiar, and feel the universal emotions that cross cultures and nations in addition to it being well-acted and touching even though it didn’t contain any famous actors and located in a strange land?” Seeing no objection to this lengthy and complex question, Ms. Doe ponders it and sheepishly replies by saying that she guesses so. “Thank you, Ms. Doe. No further questions, Your Honor.”

“Ms. Gressive, you may proceed.”

“Thank you your honor. Ms. Doe, Mr. Ventional has gotten you to admit that this film could be about humans anywhere and that its location is irrelevant, hasn’t he?” Yeah. “And yet that would only reflect a superficial understanding of this film, wouldn’t you agree?” Ms. Doe is perplexed and responds that she is not sure what she means. “Well, aren’t there deeper things going on in this film?” Again, Ms. Doe is puzzled. “Didn’t the father represent Iranian traditional values and the mother represent the modern world infringing on these values? Didn’t she, by wanting to uproot the family and move them to Europe symbolize the struggle for female sexual liberation, whereas the housekeeper, with her devout religious beliefs, represent the sexual repression of women when she had to hide from her own husband the fact that she was working for a single man and caring for — and physically touching — his enfeebled father?” Yeah, I can sorta see that. “And didn’t the legal conflict between the father and the housekeeper showcase the tensions in this society between traditional religious mores and modern legal understanding of rights and responsibilities?” Yes. “And wasn’t the mother’s assertive actions to seek out a settlement regarding this legal dispute an indication of western approaches to addressing conflict that may be overlaying more traditional cultural approaches to resolving such disputes and also a demonstration of the growing power of women?” Yes, I see that. “And wasn’t the torment of these struggles reflected in the daughter — the legal problems of the father and the separation of the parents — a metaphor for the future choices and path for countries like Iran with strong religious traditions in the midst of a world connected by the Internet, technology and culture?” Yeah, you’re right. “Didn’t all of these aspects enhance this film and give it a richer, meaningful and emotional heft?” Yes, I would agree. “Thank you, your honor. No further questions.”

“Seeing no further questions, Ms. Doe, it’s now up to you. Which perspective do you side with, Mr. Ventional or Ms. Gressive?” Ms. Doe looks down nervously and dejectedly.

“But, before you answer, court will now stand in recess.”

Doug Young is The Statesman’s film critic. He has won multiple awards for his reviews from the Colorado Press Association.