‘Their universe of discourse is populated by self-validating hypotheses which, incessantly and monopolistically repeated, become hypnotic definitions or dictations.’ (Herbert Marcuse)
The cinema of the Middle East is often stereotypically seen under the restrictive frame of ‘realism’. Euro-American audiences tend to associate formal experimentation with Western culture and often consider it an exclusive characteristic of their own aesthetic tradition. This widespread assumption underlines a deep-seated preconception that sees non-Western cultures as unable to reflect upon themselves and to deconstruct their own formal and moral conventions. Dominant narratives often depict Middle Eastern countries as prisoners of their own culture while the very same term, ‘culture’, stand for creativity and critical production when used in a ‘democratic’ context. The recent Oscar for Best Foreign film awarded to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation undermines this trite presupposition thanks to a rare acumen from which our parochialism could greatly benefit. For Farhadi’s unassuming ‘realism’ is in fact an ornate mosaic of cinematic knowledge that does not mistake visual sapience for bumptious formalism. Patiently exploring the unease of crumbling relationships, the Iranian director offers a transversal outlook on a highly topical condition: Relational fractures and the void they engender.
The universal scope that A Separation conveys through the meticulous and verisimilar exploration of earthly pettiness and contradictions eludes expectations and complacent predictions. With elaborate simplicity the director ambushes cultural clichés and sidesteps prejudices telling a story of profound, if imperfect humanity.
Puzzled by the characters erratic behaviour we fleetingly catch glimpses of their reasons only by returning to details that had previously seemed irrelevant. Only when things get increasingly complicated we realize that what the camera was almost casually capturing was in fact crucial. What seemed to be true in the eyes of one is not so before those of someone else. Behind every action there are conflicting purposes that remain hard to decipher and comprehend.
The audience does not discover the characters motivations via spectacular twists and turns but by gradually drawing near the complexities of life to unveil its recondite inscrutability. All the characters lie, dissimulate, mislead and hide secret objectives (except children), validating Renoir’s dictum in The Rules of the Game that ‘the awful thing about life is that everyone has their reasons’.
From a story of profound uncertainties (until the very end…) the director crafts a piece of pure cinema that never abuses its narrative nor narcissistically boasts its style. The film’s noblest achievement lies in its ability to articulate a multiplicity of gazes without grading them, an invisibly masterful direction that refuses facile moralizing.
Beyond the rarefied (sometimes stifling) atmospheres of certain Iranian cinema, Farhadi’s film sets forth an impalpable urgency far removed from the opportunistic need for (someone else’s) dissent. While many reviewers worldwide have dwelt on their own certainties about what life is really like in Iran, few have noticed the empowered determination of the female characters. Those who did, ‘explained’ it as a reaction to the sexual discrimination plaguing Iran (so conversely we ask them: is a submissive behaviour a sign of emancipation?). Fewer still explored the directly proportional relation between class and religion: the poorer, the more religiously devoted. In other words, we are in front a film that talked to our hearts via our guts but that somehow shunned our preconceptions and interpretative gauges. This separation parting the unrestricted character of the film from the Orientalism of its reception is a most welcome ‘interference’ exposing our (il)liberal persuasions.
While the struggle against clerical bigotry remains a sacrosanct one (as well as that against consumer tyranny, even if less exotic), our compassion towards it is of a rather dubious kind. We should perhaps let what Joseph Burke called the ‘pluralism of moral perspectives’ of A Separation contaminate our petty altruism.
Why for instance is Saudi Arabia, a country where we would all be unemployed since it bans cinema and does not allow women to walk the streets on their own, let alone make or star in a movie, never mentioned by the film community? Who knows! What we do know is that Western democracies keep up a good relationship with this ruthless monarchy and have recently sold $30bn worth of weapons to its unelected rulers…
Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name, an “open reputation” informally adopted and shared by a desiring multitude of insurgent cinephiles, transmedial terrorists, aesthetic dynamyters and random deviants. For reasons that remain unknown, the name was borrowed from a collective of anti-imperialist blind filmmakers from the Cayman Islands. Twitter feed here.