A Separation is an Iranian film with a lot of huge buzz. It won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival. It won the Rogers People’s Choice Award at the Vancouver Film Festival. It has already won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. For this year’s Oscars, it was not only nominated in that category but Best Original Screenplay as well.
The film begins with Nader and Simin: a couple married for 14 years with an 11 year-old daughter filing for divorce. Simin wasn’t to pursue her career goals in another country and take her daughter with her. Nader wants to stay as he has a father with Alzheimer’s to deal with. The judge first rejects the grounds.
In the meantime, Simin moves in with her father and recommends Nader to employ Razieh; a young, pregnant and deeply religious woman from a poor area to look after his father. Nader can’t handle the father on his own as he has a buy job at a bank and he has to look after Termeh, his daughter. Meanwhile Razieh’s hot-tempered husband Houjat is unemployed for months and owes creditors a huge amount. Nader even has the opportunity to hire Houjat at the bank but is jailed the next day for what he owes. During the time nursing, Razieh learns that looking after Nader’s father is a big challenge, both physically and religiously. She can only do so much because of her pregnancy. She also has to consult a Muslim cleric if it’s a sin to do certain duties like change the father’s soiled pants.
One day Razieh finds the father out on the streets. She has to cross a dangerous intersection to get him back. We only see her take the father back. The next day, Nader returns home to find his father lying on the opposite side of the bed with his arm tied to the bed post. He’s alive but Nader is furious. He’s even angrier to learn that there’s missing money and accuses Razieh of stealing. He fires her despite her please. She comes back to plead again but Nader pushes her out of the door. We later hear some loud thumping outside and Razieh walking away.
The next day, Simin learns that Razieh is in the hospital. She and Nader go there to find out she suffered a miscarriage. A court is assigned to decide if Nader knew of her pregnancy and caused the miscarriage. If convicted, he could face from one to three years in prison. Accusations fly. Nader accuses Razieh of neglecting his father. Houjat is angry and threatens Nader and his family. We learn that Houjat is deeply depressed, self-destructive and on antidepressants. Razieh left the house that day because she had to see a doctor. This leaves Nader to think Houjat is abusive and may be the one to cause the miscarriage.
Termeh lies to protect Nader and Simin tries to arrange for a financial deal between the couple. Nader refutes because he feels it will be like admitting guilt. Nader later tells Termeh personally that he did in fact know of Razieh pregnancy. Razieh later reveals she was hit by a car the day before she was fired, questioning what really caused the miscarriage. Finally everyone meets at the home of Razieh and Houjat including the creditors. Nader is willing to make the cheque out to Houjat on one condition, that she swears by the Koran that his actions that day were the cause of the miscarriage. Razieh can’t do it because she believes it’s a sin and that causes Houjat to break down physically and emotionally.
The film’s last scene takes place in the courtroom as Nader and Simin’s separation is to be finalized. Termeh is given the option to decide which parent to live with. She says she made up her mind but wants her parents outside. The film ends with Nader and Simin waiting outside while families are shown out in the halls waiting.
I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the marriage situation in Iran but I believe that this film is trying to make a statement about the modern day difficulties of marriage and divorce in Iran. Divorce has been a common theme in a lot of films like Kramer vs. Kramer but it’s over here where we see an angle on divorce in Iran. We see one couple separating while another couple staying together but struggling with their issues. There’s a lot of things causing friction in both couples. One has a career pursuit in another country, another has a sick father to look after. One has to work as a nurse. Another has been unemployed for months. You see the friction happening throughout the movie. It starts with the scene of Nader and Simin in court getting the divorce started and it ends as the divorce is finalized. That ending scene with the credits rolling as Nader and Simin wait for their daughter’s decision while other families are out in the halls waiting and we could even hear shouts of another couple in court is probably a statement about the modern difficulties of marriage in Iran. Mind you it’s not completely about law and divorce. There are other examples where the law provides difficulties and not strictly in the area of divorce, like providing bail upon guilt to prove innocence and avoid a lengthy prison term. Even the scenes where Houjat has creditors to deal with paints a picture.
Another key element in the movie is the use of the Koran. As most of you know, I ran is a country with a strong Muslim ethic that’s even included in its own constitution. The Koran plays a huge role in the everyday lives of people in Iran. The influence of the Koran is very present in the movie. We see how the maid couldn’t clean the soiled clothes of the father because it was against her religion. We hear mention of the Koran and God in court. We see that Termeh has to attend and all-girls school. We see how Nader uses the Koran to get the whole truth out about the miscarriage. One thing we don’t see is the Koran solving the marriages. We see the couples either continue to be split apart or going through heavier friction.
Without a doubt, the standout qualities of the film were the direction and writing of Asghar Farhadi. He did an excellent job of creating a good story out of a hot topic. The acting of Peyman Maadi and Leila Hatami was excellent too. Very genuine without any showiness. Excellent supporting performances played by Sareh Beyat and Shahab Hosseini who played the other couple in the middle. There was also excellent acting from Sarina Farhadi, Asghar’s daughter, who played Termeh, the daughter caught in the middle. The use of no score until the very end worked as a benefit for the movie because it allowed the audience feel the intensity of the story.
A Separation shows how far Iranian cinema has come. Iran’s first breakthrough came back in 1998 when Children Of Heaven was a modest hit. It was Iran’s first nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category and established director Majid Majidi as a top international director. Now A Separation is a huge favorite to win the Best Foreign Language Film category and Asghar Farhadi is the new name in Iranian cinema. It’s also surprising to see such subject matter portrayed in Iranian cinema. You think with Iran having law and order in such a strict fashion according to Muslim law, this film would’ve been banned or censored by the Ahmadinejad government. I’m not too familiar with free speech laws in Iran but I’m sure there’s a lot of censorship.
If you see A Separation, you can easily see why it’s a huge favorite to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It has a excellently-written, excellently-acted story of a hot topic in its own country. Very deserving of the win indeed.
The French/Arabic-language film Of Gods And Men doesn’t have the type of subject matter that would normally bring in a large crowd. The film is about Cicstercian Monks living in a small village in Algeria facing threats from fundamentalist terrorist groups. Nevertheless those lucky enough to see it will love it for what it is.
This film is based on an incident that happened in 1996. Seven French monks from the Algerian village of Tibhirine were found decapitated. The film focuses on the days just before they were killed. They were a group of eight monks who lived in a monastery in Tibhirine. They devoted their lives to monk rituals of gardening, distributing medical help to locals and religious devotions. They were present at the village during times of celebration and they conversed with the villagers regularly. They all did this during a time of the Algerian Civil War. Religious extremists were committing acts of brutality amongst foreigners and their own people. The pressure was felt by the monks. Christian, the leader and resident religious scholar, tells authorities they will not go. However this is hotly debated with the other monks as some fear for their own safety. Christian then gives the men time to decide whether to leave or not. News gets grimmer by the moment. They even face potential threats of their own. Authorities of the Algerian government request they leave for their lives. The villagers however convince them of how vital they are to the community. In the end, as one brother pays a visit to the monastery, they all vote to stay. Late in the night, seven of the nine are found, captured and taken away. Those would be their last minutes known to be alive.
The film has many great qualities. Its best technical quality was the cinematography as it added to the film in showcasing the landscape in its best splendor. The film was well-directed and well-written by French director Xavier Beauvois. The script he co-wrote with Etienne Comar was excellent and very no-nonsense as it cut at the heart of the monks and the village they served. As important as it was to show the events that happened leading up to the times, the script’s biggest focus was on the monks and their lives. It was more about people than events. Even the scene of the last dinner with the music of Swan Lake in the background was done with the focus on the men.
The biggest strength of the movie is definitely the acting. Of all performances, the two that stood out were that of Christian the leader and Luc the doctor. Lambert Wilson’s performance of Christian was excellent and the most intense. Often he said more in his scenes of silence than he did with his spoken parts. Michael Lonsdale’s performance of Luc the Doctor was the best supporting performance. There wasn’t a hint of phoniness in it.
As for the monks as a whole, the most remarkable thing about the film is its ability to give three-dimensional portrayal of monk characters. The film not only showed them in their prayer life but also showed the devotion during their prayers. The film showed them in their occupations and how important they were to the village. The film showed their convictions and their beliefs. The film showed the bond between the men. Above all, it was alll done in a three-dimensional manner. This is very rare for a film to accomplish that feat. Even back during the days of the Hays Code–where one of the rules was that religious figures were to be depicted in a positive manner–religious figures were still two-dimensional at the most. Even the negative depictions of religious figures that came once the Hays Code was dropped in the 60’s as ‘censorship’ or ‘restrictive of creativity’–were also two dimensional and often too stockish. This film has to be the most realistic and inside-out portrayal of religious characters, in both character and their vocation, that I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Even 1997’s The Apostle doesn’t compare as Robert Duvall’s portrayal of a minister had more focus on his passion and personal demons than on his vocation.
Also vital is the ending of the film. It is not known who exactly killed the monks. An Islamic extremist group has claimed responsibility but recent documents from the French secret service claim that the Algerian army carried it out as a mistake during the rescue attempt. The film doesn’t pick one group at fault as the monks are captured in the dead of night with the darkness hiding their identity.
There may be some nervous in seeing this film, feeling it might try to ‘convert’ them to Catholicism. For the record, director Xavier Beauvois has not directed a religious film in the past. One thing we should note is that while the monks lived at the monastery, there’s no scene of them trying to convert any of the villagers from Islam. In fact Brother Christian was as knowledgeable about the Koran as he was about the Bible. When religion extremists threatened to shoot the brothers in one instance, Brother Christian quoted a passage from the Koran which caused the leader to drop his gun and order his followers to leave. I believe Beauvois wanted to show that for the monks, the faith was mightier than the sword. Also in the script was a scene where the monks talk about the difference between the Islamics and ‘Islamists’. This is good for a time when religion faces a lot of flack from religious dissenters. I believe that may have been another point from Beauvois that it’s important for one to recognize the believers from the ‘beliefists’.
This film has won a lot of accolades. It won the Grand Prix and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The Grand Prix is second to the Palme d’Or as the most prestigious award at the Festival. Other nominations and awards have followed such as wins at France’s Cesar Awards, nominations at the European Film Awards, nominated for Best Film Not In The English Language at Britain’s BAFTA awards and was France’s official entry for the 2010 Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film was well received by critics here in North America and has a 91% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
Although this is a movie that makes for excellent viewing for Catholic communities, it’s not completely 100% ‘safe’ for everyone. There is a few profanities utters, including one by a monk. There are also some scenes of violence. The most violence is the scene of soldiers being cut at the throat by the extremists. Most of the violence is only seen through news footage.
For writers and directors with religious values, this film offers a ray of hope for those who want to break into film making. It shows that a film showcasing religious values can not only be shown on the big screen but also be written and produced well. That has long been the dilemma ever since the Hays Code has been lifted. This was best summed up in a quote by Catholic scriptwriter/acting school director Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington:
I realized coming (to Hollywood) that it’s not so much Hollywood is persecuting the Church as much as it was the Church was committing suicide in Hollywood. Big difference. So I basically wrote an article about it saying that Hollywood isn’t anti-Christian as so much as it’s anti-bad art, and we’re just giving it schlock.
She states a major hurdle here as all too often a lot of Christian writers have written a lot of scrpits viewed by Hollywood as sub-standard in skill while the more liberal writers seem to know how to write for the screen. It’s a hugely difficult task to write a film of positive values or strong faith for the general audience without crossing the line of being schmaltzy or manipulative. Of Gods And Men shows that it can be done and it’s just a matter of learning how to do things right.
If you’re fortunate enough to have it come to your city, I highly recommend you see Of Gods And Men. Even if you don’t buy the Catholic faith or want a movie with preachy religious themes, it’s a film worth watching. It’s as much about people and their devotion to their beliefs as it is about an incident that happened. Even with the tragic ending, it tells a lot about the human spirit that will stay with the viewer once they leave the theatre.