A Separation Review

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Here we go again. I caught another film now in March that, officially, is a film from last year even though we didn’t really get to see it in America until this year. I hate when that happens as then, like both of my last two best films “of the year” they’re not actually “of the year”. I just tend to hate asterisks.

A Separation PosterAnyway, A Separation comes with a pedigree as it already won the Oscar for the best foreign film. There’s also some newsworthiness to it as it’s an Iranian film that the country made a big deal about as it was up against an Israeli film. Some day, after aliens show up to take us on we’ll all find a way to get along, until then we have to put up with these sorts of odd chiding.

First and foremost I will tell you that during the entire first 90 minutes of the film I was concerned that almost nothing of any real substance had happened or seemed likely to happen. It reminded me very much of my worst film of last year—Poetry—a film where it felt like someone just turned on a camcorder and filmed whatever fell in front of it. It really managed to test my resolve with respect to patience.

Then, thankfully, like a late flower it bloomed into full brilliance and the reason for the Oscar nod made itself quite clear. The film is an exquisitely complex affair that peels away like the layers of an onion—layer after layer after layer. You think you’ve got it and then there’s another variable to consider over and over and it’s all done incredibly well.

There are some problems. The main one is that the film is clearly meant for a Middle-Eastern viewer. For an American audience there are plot points that are less than clear and that you’re aware just aren’t packing the same punch they would for, say, an Iranian. I suspect that if I had a conversation with a local about this film we’d be reacting much as if we saw two entirely different films.

There’s also a high degree of confusion on exactly who is who through much of the first half of the film and there were one or two spots where the subtitles flew by when I really wish I could have hit Pause to discuss a finer point that just dawned on me and thus distracted me from reading for a moment.

The acting is absolutely first-rate from every single character. Not one of them feels as if they could be improved upon. Each plays their role to the hilt and the script gives them every opportunity to do so. What stays with you most of all is how real it all felt. Unlike a typical Hollywood movie where things are kept fairly simple, here you have a story where just about everyone has a level of culpability in the experiences being portrayed. There’s a directness and connection with the audience here that’s different from other films and that’s a very good thing. There’s a series of scenes involving an Iranian judge that should be fascinating to virtually any Westerner. If you can ignore the bias in news and ignore the Iranian rhetoric (on both sides) and remember that this is a nation of millions of people with most of them looking to do the right thing—just like anywhere else—then perhaps its magic can work for you as well.

I still wish they could have done something a bit more interesting in the first 90 minutes as that’s the other things that’s staying with me and will likely keep this from being in my top five for the year.

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