Third Cinema revisited

Just another weblog

Nader and Simin, A Separation / Jodaelye Nader az Simin

Posted by keith1942 on September 9, 2011

This is the most recent feature in a cycle of Iranian films that have now impressed for over two decades. The films that enjoy recognition in the west are not a popular Iranian cinema but more akin to European art films. They endure strict control by the Iranian government, and several seen in the west have not been screened in Iran itself. These are predominantly films in the great Neo-realist tradition that developed in Italy in the 1940s. They frequently used actual locations, and often non-professional casts, show a tendency to longer shots and longer takes than in the mainstream cinema, offer stories set in everyday life, and follow simple, recognisable events. Most notably, the great neo-realist films [like Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (1946) or Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D (1952)] display an immense compassion for their protagonists. It is the last quality that struck me most forcibly in the film written, produced and directed by Asghar Farhadi. In fact, it lacks some of the other characteristic that often grace neo-realist films: a non-professional cast and an open script that can include improvisation. A Separation enjoys a mainly professional cast [but some are family members] and the scripting is clearly very carefully drafted and implemented. The film does offer the long shot and long take, but interspersed within a highly mobile camera, with at time frequent cuts and noticeable close-ups. But what these display is an everyday world, with the events, conflicts, emotions and responses that audiences will recognise from their own lives, [allowing for the distinctive facets that are part of an Iranian story].

It is not a militant film: indeed few Iranian films are. So it is clearly not Third Art or Cinema in the sense discussed by Franz Fanon or Fernando Solanos and Octavio Getino. However, Third Cinema is a dynamic category, and like all cultural movements, it has a dialectical relationship with society. One important manifesto on this type of cinema is For an Imperfect Cinema by Julio García Espinosa, the Cuban filmmaker. He described ‘mass art’ as ‘leftovers to be devoured and ruminated over by those who were not invited to the feast.’  He then argued: “We maintain that imperfect cinema must above all show the process which generates the problem. It is thus the opposite of a cinema principally dedicated to celebrating results, the opposite of a self-sufficient and contemplative cinema, the opposite of a cinema that ‘beautifully illustrates’ ideas or concepts which we already possess. … To show a process is not exactly equivalent to analysing it. To analyse, in the traditional sense of the word, always implies a closed prior judgement.”

This seems to describe exactly the treatment presented in A Separation. Most critics have commented on how the film does not offer a judgement on the characters and events depicted, but leaves this to the audience for consideration and reflection. In line with the neo-realist tradition the story is very simple. Nader  (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) have submitted a divorce petition to the Iranian court. They have a daughter, eleven year old Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), but neither is willing to concede custody to the other. The fourth player in this conflict is Nader’s father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) who has Alzheimer’s and require constant care in their relatively affluent apartment. Simin returns to her family home. Nader hires the working class and traditionally religious Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for his father during the day. Razieh wears the full chador. She comes with her daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), who is younger than Termeh.  Returning one day Nader finds his father alone and collapsed. on the floor. When Razieh re-appears there is an argument and Nader pushes her from the flat. Later her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), takes out a complaint against Nader when the pregnant Razieh has a miscarriage. So a new court case intervenes in the process of the original divorce case.

What one notices first is the feel of complete authenticity of the range of characters. The film won the coveted Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival: it also won the Best Actress Award shared by the female cast, and the Best Actor Award shared by the male cast. And the film enjoys ensemble acting where even minor characters are convincing. Apart from the courthouse, [for which permission for filming was refused] all the settings are actual locations. The colour palette is often subdued, with greys and drab blues. The camera work at times uses relatively long shots and long takes, but for much of the character interaction it becomes very mobile with frequent and sometimes very telling cuts.

This is a film of exchanges and looks: in some ways reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s work. Characters talk, they look and frequently there is a close-up which remains on one character. There is a powerful moment as Termeh opens the door of the apartment to see the fallen Razieh on the stairs. She remains for a time, framed in the doorway. On two occasions Nader and Termeh stand in the apartment and watch as Simin leaves in her car. Somayeh watches her mother on a bus journey when Razieh starts to display symptoms of illness. And most tellingly, towards the end of the film the families met to discuss possible payment of ‘blood money’.  The meeting breaks down and in a final moment Termeh and Somayeh, young victims in the process, exchange a glance.

There are also many moments when a character is framed alone, frequently betraying emotions repressed in company. So we see moments in which all the characters are caught crying. Simin in her car as she leaves the apartment: Termeh several times as she witnesses parental conflict. And Nader, after the argument with Razieh, cries as he washes his invalid father. Razieh and Somayeh both weep after particular traumas. And Hodjat, an aggressive character, weeps in frustration as a possible solution evaporates in conflict.

The editing is also very precise and effective. The film works by letting the audience gradually discover the complications in events. In that sense it works like a judicial hearing as we acquire greater knowledge. Cuts also increase the impact and comment on the action. Thus there are short inserts of Razieh travelling to and from her work. There are shots of one character edited alongside that of another: as in the case where we see the differing responses to crisis by Simin, Termeh and Nadir. And there is a really effective moment, late in the film: there is a long shot of Simin at the close of an evening class, she stands and adjusts her head scarf [maghna’eh], and the camera changes to a shot of Razieh, adjusting her chador, at home preparing for the meeting of the two families.

The travails that afflict these characters are not melodramatic but as series of tiny mistakes, and misconceptions that gradually build the conflict. Termeh believes, and I think the audience is likely to agree with her, that neither of her parents really wants the separation. She herself seems genuinely torn between them. Razieh’s situation as a carer gradually slips out of control. Hodjat’s aggression springs from a class-conscious sense of secondary treatment: in work, in society and [crucially] in the court process.

And none of the main characters are exactly innocent in the conflict that develops. We see scenes where Nader is obviously attempting to explain and justify his conduct. Nader also accuses Simin of  ‘all your life  … you’ve [either] run away …’ We cannot know whether this is fully justified, but it does describe Simin’s behaviour at time in the film. It becomes apparent in the film that both Razieh and Termeh tell a formal lie, though the former’s is probably more serious. Somayeh inadvertently undermines her mother’s testimony. And Hodjat responds with aggression on nearly every occasion.

In this conflict the nearest to innocents are the daughters Termeh and Somayeh. It seems important that neither couple has a son. In what is a frequent representation in Iranian cinema men are frail and ineffectual. Nadir seems not only unable but also unwilling to compromise. There are at least three major points in the film where his conduct pushes on the conflict. Hodjat’s behaviour follows a parallel, though he lacks the education and sophisticated behaviour of Nadir. And Nadir’s father is stricken by Alzheimer’s. The two married women, Simin and Razieh are not completely innocent. But in both cases there is a point when they face up to the conflict and offer a possibility of resolution.

It struck me that this gender discourse is re-inforced by the Iranian judicial system presented in the film. Whilst it uses draconian punishments, for example, the blood money option, at first glance it seems humane and fairly even-handed. However, it is also part of male dominance apparent in the society. We see one judge and hear another. Both are clearly male. In the case of the divorce the law takes Nadir’s side. In the case of involving Razieh the hearings are completely dominated by the two men. The women’ evidence, including Termeh and her tutor, is subordinate.

There is a telling moment at the opening of the film. We hear that the petition for divorce is because Simin wishes to leave the country, but Nadir wants to stay and care for his father. Evidence about the visa that has been obtained suggests that initially Nadir was willing to emigrate, but his father’s disability has changed his mind. And now the conflict involves the fate of Termeh. There is a hint that the idea of emigration is as much about Termeh’s future as it is about Simin: she responds to the judge by saying that she would ‘rather [Termeh] didn’t grow up in these circumstances.’ Simin then fails to answer the judge’s question about ‘what circumstances?’. In one sense, the rest of the film demonstrates that even at the personal level, the domination of a male centred society inhibits and restricts women.

But the film is less developed in terms of the class dimension. I assume that the film’s stance reflects the experience of the director in that its prime focus is on the professional family. Whilst there is a degree of empathy for the situation of Hodjat and Razieh, we do not get the close presentation of their situation. The film opens and closes on Nadir and Simin. To the extent that there is a resolution in the film it is one that leaves the future of Hodjat and his family hanging in the air.  This could be argued to be a reflection of the auteur approach of the film. A production that had a greater collective involvement might well have given more attention to the working class characters.

Of course, that is my interpretation. As Espinosa suggests, avoiding the convention of closure puts the audience in an unusual but rewarding position. These final minutes of the film feature another long take, with the position of the characters speaking volumes about their situation. As in classic neo-realist films this moment is both extremely moving but is likely to leave the audience thinking deeply. 

Nader and Simin, A Separation / Jodaelye Nader az Simin.

Iran, 2011. In colour, with English subtitles. Now released on DVD.

Note: The are many specific Iranian inflections in the film. One particular issue is that of ‘blood money’. Nader can avoid punishment in the court case if he can reach a settlement with Hodjat. The official rate is 15 million, but Simin proposes 4 million. It is not clear whether this is the Iranian Riall or the Tomin, a note of ten Riall. It was quite hard to find an exchange rate on the Internet, possibly due to sanctions. I think 15 million is near to £10,000 whilst 4 million is about £2,500.  This seems to fit as at one point Simin offers to sell her car to raise the money.

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  3. […] Nader and Simin a separation / Jodaí-e Nadér az Simín (Iran 2010) […]

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