Family Melodrama, Iranian Style


Hatami, Moadi, in "A Separation"

Film Friday

After hearing glowing recommendations for the Iranian Oscar winning film The Separation, I have to admit feeling a bit let down when I finally saw it last week. I was never able emotionally engage with this family melodrama, sensing that it too mechanically piled complication upon complication. Nevertheless, film has at least one salutary effect: it humanizes a country that people have blithely talked about bombing.

The separation mentioned in the title involves a wife who either wants her husband to leave his father, who has Alzheimer’s, and travel with her abroad, or grant her a divorce. He chooses the divorce and the resulting difficulties when he no longer has her help in raising their daughter and taking care of his father lead to tragedy. One could perhaps blame the all the problems on the wife (both he and the daughter certainly want to), but he also has a streak of stubborn pride that makes him difficult to live with. Meanwhile the woman that he is paying (not enough) to take care of his father while he is at work has her own set of problems, including a temperamental husband, her small child, and her advanced pregnancy.  Iran’s paternalistic laws enter into the drama (women must get permission from their husbands to do things), as do religious imperatives.

Everyone is flawed, no one is entirely honest, a number of the characters break promises and cut moral corners . . . and yet everyone is also presented sympathetically. To quote Jean Renoir from Rules of the Game, “the problem is that everyone has his reasons.” Maybe that is the film’s greatest achievement.

The film is effectively shot documentary cinéma vérité style so that you feel you are present, both in their home and then in the courtroom where everyone ends up. The feeling I had while watching the film may have been like those who first saw Italian neorealist films: a curtain is pulled back from a world that we don’t know much about.  After making certain cultural adjustments, we realize we are watching people very much like ourselves.

The movies, of course, are not real life, and just as Italy argued that it wasn’t like the images in neorealist films, I can image Iranians saying the same about Separation. Nevertheless, what we see is not Green Movement protesters or shouting Mullahs or advocates of an Iranian bomb but simple people trying to keep their bearings in difficult circumstances.

And for that reason alone, it’s nice that the film won the Oscar since more people will be introduced to the culture. Iran is not an abstraction that can be demonized.  Rather, like all countries, it is a collection of people with a vast array of personalities. May we never forget that.

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3 Comments

  1. farida
    Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    I have not watched this movie, Robin. But speaking of our ignorance of cultures outside our own and buying into the easy mass media constructs of different peoples, I remembered a documentary I watched many years ago and I had to look it up. It’s called Divorce Iranian Style (dirs. Kim Longinotto, Ziba Mir-Hosseini -1998).

    It shattered my naive thinking of Arab Muslim women as without personal agency..which of course is the construct in the media (even by peopel who should know better, myself included). It’s an interesting and often moving and sometimes humorous documentary that I think the women who read this blog might enjoy.
    Of course it runs the risk of being cast as an indictment of Arab Muslim men..which it is not and nor is it the point of it at all.

    I watched it many years ago so I hope my positive recollection are justified. I remember it as a wonderful opening of a small window into a world I knew nothing about and finding women in it struggling with some of the same frustrations and sharing the same dreams of love, family, professional aspirations as women elsewhere.

  2. Barbara
    Posted March 24, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    I saw the same documentary about 8 years ago as part of a course on Islamic law. I also have very positive memories. At the time I was struck by both the differences and similarities of our cultures. Anyone who has spent any time navigating the divorce process in the U.S. will resonate with the similarities as well as the differences. I’m going to try to get it and see it again. My favorite part was about the young daughter of the judge’s female assistant. (She hung out in the courtroom after school because there was no other child care available.) She said something like when she grew up she would make sure the men did what they promised and if not, she would catch them and bring them to court. There was also a scene where the women coming to court had there makeup and clothing “adjusted” before going into their hearings. I know a divorce lawyer who has a “dress code” for her female clients when they go to court proceedings, too. That’s most of what I remember.

  3. Farida
    Posted March 25, 2012 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    Barbara,
    I also remember a very vocal and confident young woman having a heated and sometimes humerous (I think) discussion with her uncles on why she wanted out of her marriage . And the emphasis throughout that the onus was on women to really make an effort to keep the marriage together before they were allowed out of the marital contract. Glad you had positive feelingsa about it too.

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