Windows of the World: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and A Separation film reviews
Although I love the overwrought histrionics of commercial cinema (see Agneepath), that’s certainly not the only way to make a movie. Two films that have been on a lot of last year’s top ten lists have recently made their way to San Francisco cinemas. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation are both riveting pieces of work that deal with the ambiguity and shades of gray found in complex moral situations
Despite a title that harkens back to Sergio Leone’s expressionistic spaghetti Westerns, Ceylan’s Anatolia is an understated, masterfully told story that sidesteps the conventions of most genre films. The film follows a group of local police through a long night on the Anatolian steppes as they search for the grave of a murdered man. The cops are reluctantly assisted by two perps whose memory of the crime wavers in and out of focus throughout the night.
As they drive around western Turkey’s vast landscape the police amiably debate the benefits of sheep versus buffalo yogurt, meticulously tot up mileage for reimbursement, and gossip about who among them might have prostate issues, among other mundanities. The narrative unfolds naturalistically, without a soundtrack, with some of the dialogue seemingly improvised or loosely scripted. Themes and plot points emerge slowly and sometimes indirectly—a character’s offhanded comment in one scene takes on great relevance later in the film. Such restraint and respect for the audience’s intelligence is a welcome change from the hamhandedness of most films, where exposition is a blunt instrument used to club the viewer into submission.
The film presents realistic, complex characters, with killers that weep remorsefully, cops that show compassion for criminals, and men who are overawed by the beauty of a young woman simply serving tea by candlelight. Ceylan’s direction brings a deft and subtle touch to the film—the movie concludes with a matter-of-fact autopsy with the unsettling sounds of the procedure, including cracking breastbones and dripping fluids, emphasizing the operation’s dehumanizing effect. Overall Ceylan’s direction is a lovely thing to behold, as he uses the policemen’s wanderings through the Anatolian countryside as a metaphor for the imprecision and ambiguity of humanity’s moral landscape.
While it also looks at the unclarity of human morality, A Separation’s briskly paced and intense storyline takes a different tack than Anatolia’s slower, more naturalistic tale. Farhadi’s political allegory/family drama starts in medias res, with a middle-class Iranian couple arguing their case directly to the camera (standing in for the off-screen judge). Simin, the wife wants a divorce in order to move to the United States against the wishes of Nader, her husband, who feels a duty and an obligation to remain in Iran to care for his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. Simin pleads the urgency of going abroad in order to improve the life of their adolescent daughter Termeh, although the details of this necessity are not made clear. The judge dismisses her suit, and Simin decides to move to her mother’s house rather than stay with her husband. The film follows the aftermath of her decision, with this seemingly small action leading to unexpected, ever-broadening repercussions.
The film features an outstanding ensemble cast including Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi, who won Best Actress and Actor awards at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival for their portrayals of the conflicted couple. However the rest of the performances are also excellent, including Sareh Bayat as the devout woman that Nader hires to care for his father, and Shahab Hosseini as her hotheaded husband.
Director Farhadi makes great use of his locations’ architecture, confining his characters in small, enclosed spaces that stifle communication and hinder movement. He also effectively utilizes windows and doors, often framing the actors separated or trapped behind panes of glass. Several times his characters slam or pound on a rattling, fragile stained-glass door, yet it resolutely resists shattering. The door thus becomes a symbol for the delicate yet impenetrable separations of class, religion, and gender that divide Iranian society.
Farhadi also successfully conveys the illogic of government bureaucracy in a chaotic trial that takes place in a cramped, crowded judge’s chambers. Witnesses shout at each other without hesitation, various people come and go, and criminal charges quickly escalate from theft to battery to murder based on hearsay, conjecture, and unproven accusations.
The film ultimately hinges on 11-year-old Termeh’s choice—which parent will she stay with? Her indecision becomes the crux of the film, symbolizing the impossibility of neatly resolving most human conflicts.
Like Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, A Separation eschews a Hollywood ending—loose ends dangle, storylines are unresolved, and characters remain in limbo. As in real life, clear and easy resolutions aren’t a part of the picture.
UPDATE: As expected, A Separation won for Best Foreign-language Picture at this year’s Oscars, following a similar award at the Golden Globes and, as expected, with Israel on the verge of bombing its irascible neighbor, (with the tacit approval of the U.S. government), the film’s increased profile is being spun by all sides. Although director Farhadi used his Oscar acceptance speech to make a plea for tolerance and understanding, the Iranian government claimed the award was a blow against “the Zionist lobby,” while Iranian hard-liner Masoud Ferasati called the film “the dirty picture (of Iran that) westerners are wishing for.” No doubt more mud will be slung on both sides of the propaganda war.