Saturday, 9 July 2011

a separation (w&d asghar farhadi)

My friend Mr Westaway does a great impersonation of Hitchcock talking about the banality of the kitchen sink drama. I could not do it justice in the flesh, let alone in print, but suffice to say that the old master wasn't enamoured of the genre, if that's what it is. From my point of view, UK culture is still overly rooted in a movement that could be said to have emerged from the Court in the fifties, and has persisted in the work of Loach, Andrea Arnold and countless TV dramas which seek to strip back the veil of artifice and expose the 'reality' of contemporary life.

Part of the reason for being resistant to a movement that finds its ultimate expression in the melodrama of the soap opera, is that the film and television industries are mediated by the middle classes, or even upper middle classes, in the UK. No matter how 'real' a kitchen sink drama seeks to be, it will be facilitated by the same people who are facilitating the likes of Cranford, Lark Rise to Candleford and the latest Jane Austen adaptation. The kitchen sinks on show are more likely to come from Habitat than Wickes.

However, that shouldn't be a reason for dismissing the genre out of hand. The small domestic dramas, as Austen was aware, offer an insight into a society's daily lives that grander or more poetic drama cannot. And cinema is an ideal medium for the kitchen sink drama, which is relatively cheap to film and, if done well, depends on the effectiveness of the acting as much as anything else. Which brings us to A Separation, a film where a key aspect of the plot hinges on whether the central character hears what the home help said to his daughter's tutor whilst they were literally standing beside the kitchen sink.

As the title suggests, this is a domestic drama about ordinary people struggling to get by. The premise of the film is that, without any real antagonism, Simin and Nader are splitting up. Their daughter doesn't want them to, but Nader feels he has to look after his Alzheimers afflicted father and this means the family cannot move as Simin wants. As a consequence, Nader has to hire someone to look after his father whilst he's at work. Simin finds someone, a religious woman from a poor background, who happens to be pregnant, not that you can tell. One day Nader comes home and finds his father on the floor with the woman absent. When she gets back he dismisses her, pushing her out of his flat. She loses the baby, and before Nader knows it he's up for murder.

These are the bare bones of a beautifully observed story, which hinges on a moment the viewer's already seen and hence is in a position to make their own judgement. It's very clever storytelling, mostly set within what appears to be a relatively middle class apartment. As the full consequences of Nader's actions begin to be felt, the viewer learns what it means to live in this society, one stifled by poverty and religion, as well as its curious, seemingly ad hoc legal system. However, more than just offering a vivid picture of contemporary Tehran, Farhadi also unswervingly charts the lines that exist in so many cultures between third and second worlds, and the intense pressure ordinary people all over the world feel exerted on them as they try to get by within these faultlines. Simin and Nader have a seemingly pleasant flat, she drives a decent car, their daughter goes to a good school, but all the same its as though society has restricted their potential for happiness, something latent in their situation from the beginning of the film.

Farhadi's film has been seen as a move away from the more cerebral cinematic essays of the Iranian tradition. In contrast to Kastiorami's work its narrative is straightforward. Yet the film is constructed with such delicacy, both in its screenwriting and its acting, that it never feels as though it's in danger of slipping into melodrama. A Separation is an understated and affecting film which appears to get to the heart of what it's like to live in contemporary Iran: it is as a result of its reluctance to shock or sensationalise that the film remains so watchable. I'm not suggesting Hitchcock would have liked it, but A Separation undoubtedly goes some way towards helping to redeem the kitchen sink drama, in part because it is not afraid to show the reality of a middle class kitchen sink; not just the working class ones.

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