Asghar Farhadi, 2011
#2, 2011 Skandies
This movie starts with a couple in Iran filing for divorce, not out of any lack of amity, but because they've reached an impasse that makes it impossible to continue as a couple: she wants the family to move abroad in the brief window that the paperwork allows such a move, and he won't leave his father, who has advanced Alzheimer's. The divorce is granted, but while she does pack up her things, she only moves across town to her parents' — she's not going to leave the country without her tween daughter, who stays with her father precisely so that her mother won't go. The scene in which Mom packs up her things is pretty long, and I thought this was going to turn out to be another one of those textural movies in which not much happens but the reviewers coo over how brilliantly observed all the not-much is. It's not. Initially the movie does seem like a catalogue of trivialities, but they snowball to the point that by the halfway mark you've got a bunch of handcuffed people shouting at each other in a courtroom. I can't really say much more without walking through most of the plot, so here come the spoilers.
A lot of A Separation hinges on the minutiae of who heard precisely what, when, and from whom, but the broader plot points are these. Dad hires a woman to watch over Grandpa while he's at work and Daughter is at school. This caretaker is soon overwhelmed by the work. First, she's stressed out by the long commute (via crowded bus) from her poor neighborhood to this middle-class one. Second, Grandpa is really far gone — he's totally incontinent, and prone to wandering out into traffic. Third, she has a toddler of her own to look after at the same time she's watching over the old man. Fourth, she has to do all this while pregnant. One morning she tells her daughter to take out the trash, but the little girl is too young to be entrusted with such a task, and garbage ends up all over the stairs of the apartment building and smeared over the girl's dress. While the woman is cleaning her daughter up, the old man vanishes; she finds him a block away, at a newsstand. The next day, Dad and Daughter come home to find no one answering the door. They get in with a spare key to discover Grandpa seemingly dead on the floor, his wrist tied to a bedpost, and no one else home. They revive him just as the caretaker returns with her young daughter in tow. Dad, furious, kicks her out, even giving her a little shove when she refuses to leave.
The woman has a miscarriage. If Dad is determined to be responsible, then under Iranian law, he can go to prison for up to three years. Though the case against him is weak, it's still strong enough that he feels compelled to bolster his defense with a few lies, claiming that he didn't even know the woman was pregnant; when his daughter catches him in the lie, she is shattered, and her father's explanation that he only lied so that he could continue to take care of her just makes it worse. Each hearing ends with more witnesses needing to be brought in to testify. The woman's husband, unemployed and hounded by creditors, senses that the system is stacked against his family, and begins stalking and threatening the witnesses. And there remains the question of what was so important that the woman felt it acceptable to tie the old man to the bed while she attended to her errand. It's all a giant clusterfuck in which there seems to be a heaping helping of blame for everyone. So… is there any way to untangle this? Is there anything to learn here, apart from "sometimes the initial conditions of a situation line up such that disaster is inevitable"?
I think that there is, and it's something I've mentioned in previous articles. To wit: we — and normally I say "we as a society," but since this film is set in the very different society of Iran, I guess I have to say "we as a species" — somehow need to come to grips with the reality of decline and death. In the past I've talked about this on the macro level: about the wisdom of devoting so much of our economy to making sure that suffering 87-year-olds can become suffering 88-year-olds. Here we see the same principle on the micro level. The old man in this movie has a quality of life that is less than zero. He is virtually mindless, lost in a fog where nothing makes sense, trapped in a body wallowing in its own filth. The human being he once was is gone; all that remain are his vital signs. But because his son feels compelled to preserve this shell, everything goes wrong. His granddaughter won't get to grow up in a country where women have more rights than in a backward hierocracy. His daughter-in-law is similarly stuck. His caretaker loses the chance to carry her second child to term, and the fault is more direct than it initially seems — she miscarries, we learn, after getting hit by a car while chasing after the old man. Two families are torn apart, and why? Because the main character couldn't let go when it was time. Even if he could, his society wouldn't let him, and neither would ours — we've made the perpetuation of even the most dismal life into a sacred duty. It's a problem. I wish I had an inkling of a solution.