If you had to name the highest rated, most critically acclaimed movie of the past year, what do you think you’d say-The Descendants? Way off. That only had a Metacritic score of 84. With 100 being the highest possible, The Tree of Life barely earned an average of 85 from the nation’s reviewers; The Artist just scored the Best Picture Oscar but it only scored an 89. Far and away the highest rated film with a whopping 95 average from the country’s critics was A Separation.
Which, having seen it three times now, I find a bit baffling. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, Iran’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award-and the winner in that category-is a perfectly serviceable domestic drama featuring several fine performances but hardly the flawless feat of moviemaking virtually every American reviewer has made it out to be. My suspicion is many were motivated in part by a desire to demonstrate empathy for and solidarity with the Iranian people, something that’s noble enough but has caused them, I believe, to overlook the film’s shortcomings.
His fifth picture is set in present day Tehran and concerns disputes which arise between and within two families of differing classes. Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are an educated, middle class couple who’ve been married for 14 years. As the movie opens, they face the camera and address an unseen divorce court judge. She wants to leave the country in order to give their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh, (the director’s daughter, Sarina Farhadi) a chance for a better life. He feels a duty to stay and care for his Alzheimer’s-stricken father. He’s willing to grant Simin’s petition so long as she doesn’t take Termeh with her. The judge tells them to go home, that theirs is “a little problem.”
There’s a little problem with the picture’s premise too and I haven’t come across another review that’s mentioned it: The viewer is never given a reason why the family can’t just leave the country and bring Nader’s father along. We’re informed that the husband originally planned to emigrate and are never led to believe the couple couldn’t afford to include him in their travel plans. We see him being driven all over the city. Surely he could sit on a plane every bit as easily.
After the hearing, Simin moves in with her mother forcing her husband to hire a daytime caregiver. Razieh (Sareh Bayat) is poor, devout and pregnant, though she never shares this last fact with her new employer and much in the story hinges on whether or not he’d somehow figured it out by the time he fires her for leaving the old man tied to his bed so she could sneak out to do personal errands. She refuses to go and Nader shows her the door with a slight shove. Seconds later she falls in a stairway and, when she eventually miscarries, Nader is blamed and finds himself facing a charge of murder.
The balance of the picture is devoted mostly to his attempt to prove that he didn’t know the woman was pregnant and that his actions couldn’t have caused her fall. He’s as concerned about demonstrating his innocence to his daughter as to the magistrate and the script does offer a frequently compelling portrait of human frailty as the girl grows increasingly wise to her father’s secrets and white lies. In the final act, though, the filmmaker compromises his creation by resorting to a surprise twist completely out of left field. Movie critic law prohibits me from saying more except that it’s a borderline cheap trick.
And that’s not the movie’s only flaw. It’s impossible to imagine Nader and Simin as anything other than adversaries. There isn’t the slightest hint in the way their characters are written of warmth or fondness between them and that’s a serious slip if the audience is expected to see the disintegration of their marriage as tragic.
What A Separation does splendidly, however, is provide a rare glimpse of everyday life in Iran. The film is filled with illuminating details like the Islamic advice line Razieh calls to find out whether changing the old man’s soiled pants will “count as a sin.” And the imperturbable magistrate-a one man justice system-deserves a picture all his own. The movie’s a singular mix of the foreign and familiar but is it the best 2011 film in the whole wide world? A 95? I can’t say that I concur with my colleagues on that score.