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Defending A Separation against one critic



A Separation doesn't need me to tell you that it's great. It already won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film—the first time an Iranian movie has been so honored—and with a 99 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, you won't find a better reviewed film from 2011. That's right: Out of 134 reviews, just one critic decided A Separation wasn't worth his time.

His name is David Nusair. He writes for Reel Film Reviews.

For all I know Nusair is a nice guy, but his two-star (out of five) review wreaks of insincere contrarianism. That's not to say Nusair isn't entitled to his opinion, it's just that his argument against the film is so weak that it feels like little more than an attempt to be the proverbial turd in the punchbowl. For this review, let's deconstruct his review.

There's little doubt that A Separation opens with a great deal of promise, as Farhadi kicks off the proceedings with an engrossing sequence in which Nader and Simin argue their case before an unseen judge.

Okay, so far, so good. It's a wonderfully intense opening scene as framed by writer and director Asghar Farhadi. Simin (Leila Hatami) requests a divorce from Nader (Peyman Moadi), her husband of 14 years. She wants to move abroad with Nader and Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), their 11-year-old daughter. He says he must stay in Iran to care for his Alzheimer's-stricken father.

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  • A Separation

We never see the judge, but he refuses to grant the divorce, coldly telling her that she needs a better reason. By this point, though, Simin has already moved back in with her parents, leaving her husband and daughter on their own in their upper middle-class apartment and leaving Nader in search of someone to help care for his father. The dialogue in these early scenes often comes at a frenetic pace—worth mentioning because you may find yourself straining to keep up with the subtitles.

A Separation morphs into a languid kitchen-sink drama revolving primarily around the subdued exploits of the film's various characters—with the palpable authenticity of Farhadi's screenplay initially offsetting the decidedly less-than-captivating nature of many of these scenes.

Nusair has no patience. How else to explain his inability to appreciate the subtle storytelling of everyday Iranian life as it shifts from the mundane into a suspenseful crime drama? To the film's great credit, nothing is rushed here. Thanks to the nearly constant use of handheld cameras, A Separation looks and feels eerily like a documentary.

Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a lower-class woman from the outskirts of Tehran, to care for his ailing father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). She barely makes it through the first day, during which—in one of the film's most poignant scenes—she calls a local mosque to ask if it is a sin to clean the elderly man, who has wet himself. With her young daughter in tow, Razieh is clearly overwhelmed but she soldiers on in order to make money to help her husband, who is in financial trouble.

Farhadi offers up an increasingly melodramatic narrative that simply isn't as intriguing or engaging as he clearly believes it to be ...

I too had doubts as to where A Separation was headed, but to write off the ensuing conflict as melodrama is just lazy. Razieh suffers a miscarriage following a brief scuffle with Nader, who is justifiably upset with her after returning home early to find his father unconscious and alone. She blames Nader for causing the miscarriage, which in Iran carries a penalty of up to three years in prison.

What unfolds over the second half of the film is an Iranian version of "Law & Order," and a fascinating one full of surprises. If anything, the scenes are understated as the film evolves, and are all the more powerful because if it. The moral dilemmas are plentiful and painful—the shot of Termeh realizing as she testifies that her father expects her to lie in order to protect him is a heartbreaker.

The progressively tedious atmosphere ultimately prevents the film's final scenes from making any real emotional impact ...

The atmosphere is what drives this film, and it is far from tedious. From the chaotic Tehran police station to the crowded city streets, part of what makes A Separation so mesmerizing is that we're seeing a place and experiencing a culture that Hollywood has chosen to ignore for pretty much forever. This film removes Iran as an abstraction, and does so while telling a moving story. Moadi in particular probably deserved an Oscar nomination for playing an overwhelmed and stressed-out father, who, no matter how good his intentions, may still be caught in a lie.

And sorry, David Nusair, but the final scenes of A Separation—back in the same courthouse where we began—are emotionally jolting and nearly perfect.

I stand with the 99 percent.

A Separation continues at the Wilma Theatre.

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