Is it fair or even totally accurate to describe Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, the story of a middle-class couple's dissolving marriage and the legal battle they engage in with a poorer family, as "distinctly Iranian"? Take a cursory look at the film's international reception and you'll spot the recurring motif immediately: The Guardian calls it a story of "national alienation in Iran"; The Hollywood Reporter argues that it "succeeds in bringing Iranian society into focus in a way few films have before"; and Variety, in another emphatically positive notice, explains that the film "casts a revealing light on contemporary Iranian society." One wonders why Farhadi didn't simply go ahead and title his film Iran: The Movie. It's true, of course, that A Separation is set quite unmistakably in its homeland, and because certain salient aspects of its narrative relate directly, if only incidentally, to the nuances of the country's legal system, it's perhaps a given that the film is shaped at least in part by its setting. But defining A Separation exclusively by its national origins is a mistake: It means adopting a myopic Western perspective, a privileged viewpoint from which anything foreign becomes irrevocably colored by its perceived Otherness.
When a morally complex social drama emerges from a specific international market, it's inevitably perceived in the West to be about that market, a piquant but ultimately remote curiosity with nothing to teach us about what's here and now, just there and whenever. When almost precisely the same sort of film—like, for instance, Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, a similarly robust moral tale—is produced and received domestically, it's instead free to be about whatever it's actually about: Thus, while A Separation is a film about Iranian legal arcana and a system of corruption and repression, Margaret is naturally about "human nature," its themes thoroughly universal. Much in the same way that "whiteness" is presumed to be a kind of racial default, with other races positively defined only in opposition, A Separation is denied a claim to universality; its impact is necessarily restricted to the social environment from which it was borne and to which it must be resigned.
Rather ironically, this imposed cultural specificity traditionally improves a foreign film's reception abroad, particularly when it emerges from a country perceived here to be repressive or somehow archaic: Western critics are quick to hail a film for its "important critique" of its national values and practices, which is why Farhadi has been revered for his outspoken radicalism. This is entirely typical of the perception of Iranian filmmakers in the West: Many of the most internationally well-regarded Iranian filmmakers, particularly Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi, are respected at least in part because they are also considered vitriolic critics of their homeland, which Westerners often view as abhorrently regressive and confused. Of course, the Iranian government is indeed worthy of criticism and indictment, and Makhmalbaf and Panahi have both felt the wrath of its notoriously brutal censors (Panahi articulated his dilemma and the very real threat posed by his government in his recent "effort" This Is Not a Film, another film less "about" Iran than its proponents have righteously declared). But this context now represents a critical vacuum from which no other Iranian film can hope to free itself; every Iranian film, simply by virtue of being made in that country, takes on the baggage of its nation, and each Iranian filmmaker becomes an ambassador of hope or a martyr for freedom.
It's odd, given how overt its criticisms of Iranian society are claimed by critics to be, that the Farabi Cinema Foundation—the arm of Iran's government that determines the production of films and acts as vigilant censor—approved the development of A Separation, giving it the go-ahead despite the "revealing light" it so obviously casts on contemporary Iranian life. As Persian film critic Tina Hassannia wrote for InReviewOnline, this approval—and the fact that A Separation was selected by Iran for official submission to the most recent Academy Awards, months after the film had made headlines as a "critique"—suggests "that Farabi's approval process is actually somewhat more relaxed than we've been led to believe, which is further supported by the approval of other, more explicitly radical films (for example, Kamal Tabrizi's The Lizard, a comedy involving a thief who escapes prison by impersonating a mullah)." Indeed, the more one examines the nation's cinematic history, even post-Revolution, the more our conceptions of its draconian censorship becomes complicated: Even Abbas Kiarostami, the most well-regarded of all Iranian filmmakers and a notable "critic" of his country, had his films not only approved, but actually funded by the Iranian government during the '70s and '80s. Perhaps the reason the Iranian government was so willing to allow A Separation to pass is that its social and political criticisms cut just as deep abroad as they do at home; if it is indeed a vitriolic critique, we are all equally culpable.
This isn't to say that the national character of A Separation is or ever should be considered entirely irrelevant; its milieu matters as much as (but no more than) New York matters to Margaret. But to limit an examination of the film to its national specifics severely reduces the scope of its emotional and intellectual import, which is resolutely universal. "What's wrong is wrong," Nadir, the male lead, explains to his daughter early in the film."It doesn't matter who says it." That sort of well-meaning but ultimately misguided recalcitrance isn't a product of one nation or another; we're universally obstinate and self-serving. When the film suddenly and dramatically pivots between the first and second act, after Nadir shoves his father's working-class caretaker down a stairway and the two find themselves wrapped up in a protracted lawsuit, perspective becomes as important at it is ever-shifting; justice proves too nebulous a concept to pin down and the characters, flailing frantically to keep their heads above water, find the legal system only as functional as one is capable of maneuvering within it (class proves an advantage here, but so, too, is eloquence and persuasiveness; whether that's "cheating" or unfair is up to us). The truth, it seems, is less important than how well it's articulated. In the end, this is a deeply moral film about an array of complicated issues—the corrugated surfaces of morality and truth, the porousness of law, the wiggle-room within ethical principals—and if we don't think it's about us we're truly missing the point.
IMAGE / SOUND:
Would that morality and justice were as crystal-clear as Sony's AVC-encoded 1080p transfer, an excellent example of a high-caliber, naturalistic HD presentation. Sony has done a very good job of preserving the film's original crispness and clarity, effectively effacing the wow factor (you'll find no overly saturated colors or shockingly detailed close-ups here) in order to allow us to focus more clearly on the subject matter at hand. In a word, the transfer is unfussy: detail remains strong and constant throughout; light levels and skin tones look natural and well-balanced; and black levels show a good degree of gradation (it isn't an especially dark film, mind you, but check out the receding layers of shadow in the many folds of Razieh's pitch-black chador for proof that this transfer is great in all the right places).
Because A Separation has no diegetic music and very little in the way of loud sound effects, Sony's DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack has fewer opportunities to really work up a sweat. That said, this is obviously a talk-heavy picture, and the transfer works wonders with the frequently overlapping Farsi dialogue. Sound is centrally oriented and the back channels are rarely used (save for some street noise and background chatter, most evident in the bustling courthouse), but these aspects of the mix are faithful to the film even if they don't pack a notable wallop of their own. As with the image, what's important is that the focus be placed on the film: Clarifying what's said and how it's said are crucial to the unfolding drama, and this DTS-HD track does the job admirably.
As you might expect given A Separation's level of international prestige (and, significantly, North American interest), Sony has assembled a commendable stable of special features for the film's post-Oscar home-video debut. A feature-length commentary track by director Asghar Farhadi proves to be the disc's most essential contribution, offering often oblique but always interesting insight into the development and production of the film. Farhadi points out early on that he isn't comfortable with the idea of explaining his work for audiences because he'd prefer to leave that task with them, which gels nicely with the authorial impartiality of the film itself without reducing the importance of his own perception of the material. "An Evening with Asghar Farhadi" is a half-hour talk with the director before a warm and receptive audience, and despite the baffling questions directed his way, Farhadi emerges sounding as intelligent and articulate as ever. "Birth of a Director" is a shorter, one-on-one interview with a French journalist, and as the title suggests, it's principally focused on Farhadi's humble beginnings and on the thematic and formal evolution of his work (A Separation is discussed at length, but the amount of time spent on his earlier films suggests that the extra will be more useful to people already familiar with his previous features). The interview is surprisingly involved given the typical nature of these sorts of featurettes, and much of what Farhadi has to say is insightful and fascinating. A bevy of Sony trailers (including, incongruously, one for Darling Companion, which is practically A Separation's polar opposite) round out the set, but what these features lack in quantity they more than make up for in substance and value. More Blu-rays could stand to do the same.
A moral tale of immense depth and sophistication, Asghar Farhadi's rightly praised A Separation remains one of the most important films of the young decade to date.