If you had to name the highest-rated, most critically acclaimed movie of 2011, what do you think you’d say? The Descendants? Way off. That only had a score of 84 on Metacritic, which aggregates film reviews. Out of 100, The Tree of Life barely earned an average of 85 from the nation’s reviewers; The Artist just snagged the Best Picture Oscar, but it only scored 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 it’s hardly the flawless feat of moviemaking virtually every American reviewer has made it out to be. My suspicion is that many were motivated, in part, by a desire to demonstrate empathy for and solidarity with the Iranian people. That motive may be noble, but it has caused them, I believe, to overlook the film’s shortcomings.
Farhadi’s fifth picture is set in present-day Tehran and concerns disputes that arise between and within two families of different 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. Simin wants to leave the country to give their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (the director’s daughter, Sarina Farhadi), a chance for a better life. Nader 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, saying theirs is “a little problem.”
There’s a little problem with the picture’s premise, too, and I haven’t seen 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 his father 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. Much of the story hinges on whether Nader has somehow figured it out by the time he fires Razieh for leaving the old man tied to his bed so she can sneak out to do personal errands. That sets in motion a tragic chain of events that leaves Nader facing a charge of murder.
The balance of the picture is devoted to his attempts to clear himself. Nader is 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 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 but adversaries. Their characters are written in a way that doesn’t give the slightest hint 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, such as 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 is a singular mix of the foreign and the familiar, but is it the best 2011 film in the whole world? A 95? I can’t say that I concur with my colleagues on that score.