Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 20th, 2012

Radical ambiguity: A Separation and Certified Copy

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As the movie awards season winds to a close, I’ve been working to catch up on recent releases, in preparation for writing up my annual top ten list. Making such a list is always a pleasure, and I’ve done this every year for as long as I can remember, whether I’ve had anyone interested in reading it or not. One of the small pleasures of making this list is seeing patterns that might not have been otherwise obvious. This year, for instance, I’m a little surprised to discover that my two favorite American movies both starred Brad Pitt—which may not seem so surprising at first, but he’s so different in Moneyball and The Tree of Life that it’s hard to regard them as the work of the same actor, much less one of the world’s biggest movie stars. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve discovered that my two favorite foreign films this year were both made by directors from Iran, which is so striking a fact that it seems worthwhile to drill deeper.

On the surface, the two movies couldn’t feel more different. The first, the extraordinary Certified Copy, which I’ve written about here before, looks like a glossy international production, with director Abbas Kiarostami working in Tuscany with a cast that includes William Shimell and Juliette Binoche. While it’s certainly engaging, it’s also intensely cerebral, a puzzle box designed to frustrate the viewer’s expectations. The second film, A Separation, which I finally saw this weekend, is rooted in the culture of contemporary Iran, and draws more on the tradition of melodrama, presented with a scrupulous realism that sucks the audience in immediately. Yet both films have, at their core, a similar ambiguity, a refusal to provide easy answers, and a fascination with the complexities of our most intimate human relationships.

Of the two, A Separation is by far the more accessible, a layered, expertly paced story that spins alarming complications out of the seemingly simple decision of a married couple, played by Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi, to separate. The screenplay, by director Asghar Farhadi, is beautifully constructed, integrating a large cast in a web of misunderstanding that never seems contrived, even in its pointedly open ending. It’s one of the hardest kinds of stories to tell in any language: one in which there are no villains, and in which everyone’s motives are basically sound, but which nonetheless leads to tragedy. And while the story is universal, much of its interest for foreign audiences—who have made it the most critically acclaimed movie of the year—certainly lies in the view it affords of the particulars of its characters’ lives. (The glimpses we get of the Iranian legal system, as embodied by a harried but essentially fair judge played by Babak Karimi, are especially fascinating.)

It’s no secret that for a director in the Iranian film industry to make movies for an international audience requires uncanny degrees of skill, ingenuity, and good fortune, as well as a temperament that finds the silver lining in unwanted constraints. Farhadi is manifestly a writer and director of considerable talent, and in A Separation, he takes a story that is intensely focused, perhaps by necessity, on the sphere of domestic life and makes it feel remarkably expansive, taking in countless small stories on the margins without ever losing track of the main thread. Like many artists who have worked under similar circumstances, both he and Kiarostami finally plant their standards in the realm of ambiguity, in the insistence on seeing past normal ethical or narrative distinctions, which in itself can seem like a radical act. If Kiarostami does this mostly from the head, Farhadi does it from the heart—but clearly these two directors have a lot of both.

Written by nevalalee

February 20, 2012 at 10:16 am

Quote of the Day

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Scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge; but I suspect they differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.

Robert Frost

Written by nevalalee

February 20, 2012 at 7:50 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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