Every so often a film comes along which reminds you of the power of simple, unfussy storytelling. A Separation, a drama about two families in Iran, doesn’t contain any clever camera angles or suggestive imagery; it doesn’t play with narrative form or time; there are no self-conscious nods to other works or tête-à-têtes with genre. It’s just a great script, delivered by unshowy actors and deftly filmed by writer-director Asghar Farhadi. Its two-hour running time positively flew by.
There is no music; instead the film’s soundscape is filled with words – justifications, accusations, explanations and advice. In lesser hands it could have been heavy going, but here it works faultlessly thanks to the quality of writing and acting. At every stage you can understand exactly why each character chooses to act in the way they do, yet by the half way point they’ve all found themselves in a horrible mess of their own making. You’re challenged to think – and judge – and consider the shades of grey that occur in every conflict.
The film itself is reluctant to take sides, either in the dispute between the two families or those of the respective couples within them. The opening scene is almost a manifesto: a man and wife argue, presenting the facts of their case directly to camera, with us the audience in place of an unseen arbitrator. It’s also a brilliantly economical expository device, dispensing with the need for more conventional introductions and allowing the meat of the plot to commence from the off.
Things are said and actions carried out in a tale which explores the discrepancies of gender and class, but by the end it’s hard to discern whether any real progress has been made. The final scene returns to the conflict of the first and shapes as if to resolve it, but again the film refuses to pass judgement – and in doing so also ticks its obligatory arthouse ending-with-a-question box. I liked it.
My only qualm was with the moment of violence on which everything hinges: it needed to be more violent – or perhaps less clear, or perhaps off screen altogether – for me to believe in the possibility that its consequences were as severe as is alleged by the victim in the film. It was a rare moment of ‘action’ not quite pulled off with the same aplomb as the countless triumphs of dialogue – and as such I was always secretly sure of the perpetrator’s moral safety.
Still, A Separation achieves all it sets out to do in fine style. It doesn’t push any cinematic boundaries or threaten to reinvent the wheel – but this is proper adult drama and, in its admirable compassion for all of its characters, it even reminded me of last year’s extraordinary Of Gods and Men. A controlled, intelligent and elegant piece of cinema.