Leah McLaren had some interesting commentary in a recent Globe and Mail, asking the following: “Would a dark and brooding character study such as Martha Mary May Marlene – about a woman’s tenuous escape from a cult leader who specializes in rape – have a snowball’s chance of getting nominated had it been set in Italy rather than New York State? What if Shame were about a Chinese sex addict, instead of one played by Michael Fassbender?...We tend to recoil from challenging foreign films and to overpraise slight ones, to the detriment of our cinematic culture as a whole.” It’s quite true – for instance, I’ve written several times about the farcical disconnection between the Oscar for best foreign language film and the actual best foreign language films, and when people tell me they like subtitled movies, it usually turns out to mean they once saw Cinema Paradiso.
Watching foreign films
But the point I think isn’t just about slight foreign films, most of which we never even get to see. It’s that the audience for foreign films (to the extent it even exists any more) only tolerates so much foreignness, as a seasoning to a main course of universal accessibility. The last two Oscar winners, In a Better World and The Secret before their Eyes, illustrate this exactly – strip away the local colour and they could be remade by Hollywood with barely a rewrite; in fact, the directors of both films have worked frequently in America in recent years. And did you know that the un-esteemed blockbusters The Tourist and X Men Origins: Wolverine were both directed by former winners of that same Oscar? How “foreign” could their sensibilities have been in the first place?
The most acclaimed of recent foreign films, A Separation, provides an interesting variation on this trend. It comes from Iran, certainly a source of some rich cinema in the past (the best known of its directors is Abbas Kiarostami), but none of it experiencing the popular success of an Almodovar. I think it’s fair to say many viewers, rightly or not, would have doubted whether a film from Iran could possibly yield that “universal accessibility” I mentioned – after all, it’s part of the axis of the evil you know, led by a madman, plotting to nuke Israel, or maybe all of us. I don’t suppose that’s really a subject for flippancy, but A Separation seems to make that attitude almost inevitable, by depicting nice-looking apartments with widescreen televisions, and big fridges with magnets on them, and people driving Peugeots. On the other hand of course, all the women cover their heads (some more rigorously than others) and for every exchange we’d read as “normal” life, there’s another lying far outside the Western frame of reference.
The separation of the title is between Nader and his wife Simin, forced by her desire to move abroad with her daughter (her unarticulated disquiet about bringing up the girl in present-day Iran is as close as the film gets to criticizing the prevailing regime). He resists, primarily because of the needs of his elderly father, who has Alzheimer’s. Simin moves out, and Nader employs another woman, Razieh, to take care of him, but the relationship quickly disintegrates. After Nader ejects her from the apartment, Razieh falls on the stairs, subsequently losing the baby she was carrying. Nader is charged with murdering the unborn child, with the case turning on several questions: whether she fell directly because of his push; whether her miscarriage resulted from this or some other event; perhaps most crucially, whether he knew she was pregnant.
In its review of the film, directed by Asghar Farhadi, Sight and Sound called it “fiercely intelligent, morally and emotionally complex,” and said “It’s a film that pays us the compliment of letting us make up our own minds.” I find this more persuasive in some senses than others. To the extent that we have to make up our own minds about the facts of the depicted events, it’s largely just the result of a cinematic contrivance, not inherently more sophisticated than any he said/she said police procedural. Critics like to praise films for not imposing their meanings on the audience – for example, when I reviewed The Descendants a few weeks ago, I quoted A. O. Scott’s praise of it as resisting a sense of “predetermination” – but frankly, I don’t know if being allowed to “make up our own minds” is really such a big deal. I mean, we spend a big chunk of our lives making up our own minds, not necessarily with such stellar results. I think we could use more artists who are actually out to change our minds, and who are passionate about it.
Still, within those rather limited parameters, A Separation is consistently intriguing and sometimes very striking. For example, when Nader meets Razieh’s husband, Hodjat, after the miscarriage, Hodjat’s predominant concern is that Nader would have hired her without obtaining his permission. In fact, the film has already shown us how Razieh arranges with Nader to keep this from Hodjat, indicating she views her duties to her husband in this regard as being malleable; in other respects though she’s entirely devout, and the film ultimately turns on her belief that swearing on the Qur’an in a certain situation would be a sin, with tangible repercussions for the daughter she already has. But this doesn’t mean the Qur’an is as dominant a force for everyone – when Hodjat refers to it earlier in the film, it seems to be a function of class sensitivity rather than piety. In other words, it’s constantly provocative and stimulating about the nature of what we’re actually watching.
Making up our own minds
Even this carries the risk though of making us confused between aspects of A Separation that are inherently and productively ambiguous, and aspects that only seem that way because we don’t know enough to interpret what we’re watching. In that same issue of Sight and Sound, Farhadi talked about working within the Iranian system (under which many other directors have been suppressed, or even imprisoned), saying: “My way of dealing with it is, rather than put a message in my film, I raise a question – because if it’s a question, you’re unlikely to get censored.” But this surely puts a different light on the “compliment” of letting us make up our own minds, suggesting it’s in large part a practical compromise, the price of being allowed to keep on working.
My point isn’t that A Separation doesn’t deserve the attention it’s receiving, but that the unfamiliarity of its origin and of the circumstances of its production create a heightened risk of our unwittingly patronizing the film, as another fascinating glimpse at exotic others, all the better for being intelligent in much the way we’d like an American movie to be. It’s doing the film a disservice, I think, not to realize that underneath all the points of identification, it may be in many senses even more foreign than we realize.