A perfect movie story: A Separation (plus, bonus review and a cinema complaint)
The 2012 Oscar for the vast territory of Best Foreign Film went to A Separation. I’m happy to claim that it is a perfect story.
Is it it a perfect film? Well, its art aims for transparency; there are no moments of Look At Me filmmaking; it’s always look at them, look at this; acting, photography and soundtrack are thoroughly naturalistic (Was there any music? If there was it must have been eidetic.) It is like a perfect short story or novella, with every line connecting, if not conciled, every cross grain gestured to, every feeling comprehended and developed.
For just over two hours director Asghar Farhadi presents what seems to a simple tale about a couple, and their daughter. And then the husband’s father. Also, his carer. And there’s her daughter. And her husband. And the constraints of fundamentalist religion. And the legal system. And the problem of “truth”. And “loyalty”. And “blame” — of “right” and “wrong”. That’s a lot to tell, concisely and lucidly, with each shade of nuance registered.
You can google the plot if you like, but I suggest the standard don’t-tell-me-anything approach. The premise is explained immediately under the opening credits, and indeed, the film persists under the closing credits. Not a wasted minute. But if you must know, here is a small bit of spoiler-free to tempt you — this is how it starts:
A woman and a man are facing the camera, pleading their cases to the magistrate (or to us?). She wants to leave Iran (we soon realise why), she wants a divorce; she wants to to take her daughter. She waves the visa which has taken an age to obtain and expires shortly. Her husband says she can have a divorce but refuses to let the daughter go. Plus, he’s got a father with Alzheimer’s to look after. It gets terse.
Simin: “He doesn’t even know you’re his son!”
Nader: “I know he is my father!”
Shortly, from the magistrate dismissing them: “My finding is that your problem is a small problem.”
She leaves husband and daughter to stay with her mother, maybe temporarily, maybe for good. He hires a woman to look after his father in the apartment while he goes off to work and the daughter to school. Fom there the pebble ripples, only it is not a pebble but a rock, a small landslide of rocks.
It’s a human drama that plays as a supremely absorbing legal procedural; an amped-up episode of Law and Order with all the gradually revealed uncertainties of a suspense thriller. Who was at fault? Did he know? Did she know? Which will the daughter choose? We also get to see a deep slice of (mostly middle class) Iranian life: surprisingly familiar, but so different. Most of all, we are rewarded with a superb story perfectly told.
The ancient father-in-law commented, as we walked to the car: Didn’t you tell me we would see life in Iran? They were just like everyone else!
+ + +
Bonus review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Was put off seeing this by several critics who I find easy to agree with: Slate’s Dana Stevens, and the enthusiast, Roger Ebert, thought it hard to follow; the New Yorker‘s great Anthony Lane claimed “I was almost bored”. (Cinetologist Buckmaster found it incoherent.)
I should have known better — Lane begins his critique by quoting from the novel and ends by advising: “If we want George Smiley and his people … we should … go back to our books.” That’s as perverse as a film reviewer gets. But as director Tomas Alfredson tells us in an interview with Filmspotting, author (and executive producer on the movie) John le Carre said, Please don’t do the book, it already exists. If you make a crappy film, the book is still good. Feel free to make something new…
We (me, Constant Gardener and the ancient father-in-law) were entranced. It’s about Englishness (dialogue-dense; it really is the talkies), about loyalties, about duty, and about the light in London in the 70s. A sparkling Laneism: “Welcome to the fashionable nineteen-seventies, where your walls matched your sideburns.” It is certainly shot with a kind of dank chic, a brown and blue-grey mood piece.
We didn’t find it hard to follow; and anyway, having watched The Maltese Falcon several times I still have no idea what happened — and it doesn’t lessen my fascination a single whit. The pleasures here are not about whodunit or why, or the mechanistic thrill of picture puzzle completion. Tinker Tailor‘s allure is in its portrait of a place and a time and the cold war people it made. Anyone who saw the greatest contemporary Swedish vampire art movie of the last four years, Let the Right One In, will know what beauty director Alfredson wrought on his gothic material. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has effortless panache: like a pre-Paul Smith Saville Row three piece topped with a pair of Cutler and Gross spectacle frames.
+ + +
A Rivoli complaint
I can’t let this one get away. One problem is a mistake, maybe; about four is simply egregious and makes you think management is sloppy at the least.
I went to the Rivoli cinema twice in three days. The Rivoli has a certain reputation, being the movie home of bourgeoisie central, Camberwell, and sporting a Gold Class street entrance for its $39 ticket patrons.
Complaints 1a and 1b)
a) On Sunday we attended the 9:10 pm session of Tinker Tailor — a little early, we were sent on to Cinema 3, and walked in to what seemed like a trailer, but I recognised the actors and realised we had come in to the end of Carnage. I backtracked to the ticket person to ask and sure enough that film was still rolling. Strike one.
b) When we were finally seated (in a well-attended session) it seemed airless and steamy, which I had already noticed at our earlier intrusion. I went out to alert someone about this and saw that someone else was already telling one of the staff. I added my piece (in the hearing of other staff) and was advised that they had told the projectionist who would fix it, and thanks for telling them.
They did not fix it and we had to sit through an unpleasantly stuffy and sticky session. Maybe the AC always works in the $39 seats?
Complaints 2a and 2b)
On the Tuesday afternoon I went with the ancient father-in-law to watch A Separation at 2:10 pm. (Perhaps not so well-advised as it features a pivotal role for the aged father with Alzheimer’s, though the f-i-law didn’t seem confronted.)
A quarter of the way in there is a comic-horror scene where a little child is playing with an oxygen valve — we watch alternately the child’s face of glee and the old man’s expressions under his mask as she turns the valve on, and off, and on, and off. And then … the screen goes black, with a hissing sound. We all thought, Oh God, the old man! And the black screen goes on for a whole minute — incredibly audacious filmmaking, I thought.
a) A few more minutes of the audacity and one of the audience — about 30 folk, practically all seniors, and demographically the Rivoli’s target centre — finally leapt to his feet to advise an actual human staff member. Four or five minutes later someone comes in to say that it’s okay folks, we’re doing something about it. Three minutes later another young fella dashes up the side aisle.
Fifteen or so minutes on (ten or so in the dark without auditorium lights) the film returns, but in the wrong spot and we’re treated to a few jump rewinds they cast about for continuity.
b) At the climactic final 7 or 10 minutes, a bunch of chattering people come into the cinema groping about in the dark. Shh! Shh! ricochets around until they sat down. What on earth? Clamming up they watch the last crucial scene.
As we were leaving, I spoke to one lady who had come in late and she explain they had been waiting outside for 15 minutes or so and there was no usher around so they decided to come in, and thought they must have arrived a bit late, or too early (as we had a couple of nights ago). Thus, they detracted from our viewing of our film’s climax, and quite likely ruined the suspense of their own viewing.
As I turned for the door an usher did finally come into say that this next session was starting late so it wouldn’t have ads or trailers and he would explain what had happened earlier. To return to a bone, I wonder if they treat their $39 patrons in thesame shabby way.