Family Matters

May 17th, 2012  |  Published in May 2012

There were a number of films that engaged “family matters’” shown in Cincinnati these past two months, most significantly the long-running Academy Award-winning Iranian A Separation, which truly deserved such acclaim. This heartbreaking drama of well-intentioned people drawn into conflicts over their differing agendas shows the difficulties of accommodating others’ (and one’s own) sincerely held beliefs.

At the start, a husband (Peyman Moadi) and his wife (Leila Hatami) stand before an impassive camera (standing in for a mediator/judge) in a bare room. She wants to leave Iran for her young teenaged daughter’s (Sareh Bayat) sake—for the greater educational opportunities available beyond its borders for young women. He wants to stay, out of a sense of filial duty to tend his increasingly senile father—the necessary and right thing to do, as he sees it. He has to give his permission for an overseas visa for them, or a divorce, which, in that patriarchal culture, he has the power over, and initially refuses. Thus what seems a purely domestic drama is set in motion, but as it gathers complications and twists (and deeper and deeper illustrations of just what decisions entail and lead to in unforeseen ways) this becomes a simulacrum of “real life” beyond these particular concerns.

The film becomes a  meditation on economic class, family duties, religious and social expectations, gender roles and personal responsibilities in marriage and beyond. Its questions of truth-telling and lies, (and therefore, questions of justice), transcend culture enough to be easily understood by Americans although it takes place in present-day Teheran. The director, Asghar Farhadi, has made four previous films, all sounding as if they are directed in a similar performance-oriented style, and all concerning intense social problems as motives for the characters’ challenged behaviors.

In A Separation, stresses of legal proceedings and some attendant mysteries in the plot to be solved by the characters and viewers raise questions of ethics and morality that deepen beyond easy definitions, much less answers, in an increasingly complex narrative that keeps surprising in its twists and turns.   In fact, it is an open-ended mystery, on one level, yet very specific and construable. The “facts” are ultimately clear enough, but the moral equations stirred into motion by these pieces of information are profoundly addressed but not at all easily or simply resolved. In fact, everyone is compromised to some degree by following paths toward their own goals despite the wills and wishes of the other people in their lives.

If I describe this film primarily in terms of plot and as complicatedly content-driven, it’s because the visual aesthetic has been chosen to best serve its remarkable and sophisticated script—which is its greatest strength.  The camera is always in service of conveying information in an active, almost cinema-verite style, inquisitively serving the “truths” of its situations without seeming pretentious or prejudicial. The careful selectivity of what is shown—and what isn’t—is a part of the art, the design in the narrative, which is a descent into pain and failure driven almost entirely by what the characters  perceive as “good-intentions.”

The art here is in the camera being always in service to showing things as they unfold and from an  inquisitive, even pushy photojournalist perspective, but without prejudice or aestheticism. There are no pretty shots here, art for art’s sake; only an aggressive following of the action, the restless camera everywhere tracking through doors, rooms, scenes, keeping up with the physical and emotional “action,” without any padding or irrelevance. Everything comes to count.

A Separation becomes a meditation on the unfolding of human wills and desires in the context of unforeseeable larger fates that are accidental perhaps, but create decision-trees that lead to quandaries on a level beyond simply domestic squabbling, toward a larger confrontation with one’s understanding of self. This is akin to the ancient Greek dramas in this respect: one’s weakness or selfishness determines the degree and possibilities of one’s fate in the crucible of impassive circumstances inexorably unfolding. At the core, this is a sad, curdled marriage that started out with love and respect, and yet ends in soulful disappointment, characters deeply chastened by attempted compromises of principles in the name of other goals. The possibilities become more damaged and less likely as the complex webs of interactions of wills unfold.

This is about as close to an analysis of “real life” relationship psychodramas as it gets—reminiscent in this regard of The Rules of the Game by Renoir, in its multi-layered, multi-perspective dissection of its corrupt high and low society of France at the verge of WWII. Here, the ‘givens,’ the rules, are the ayatollahs’, but that aspect (religious orthodoxy) only sometimes comes into play—mostly in power struggles over gender dominance and expectations of one’s relation to Truth under the Koran—in daily domestic life. This is an implicit critique of the bases of the culture. Yet, these are sincere, believing, ethical people with specific quandaries that go beyond the Iranian to the universal.

It’s mostly intra-psychic, though there are angry confrontations, some bloody even, as a motif stitching through the narrative, to the ambivalent ending that invites us to weigh the mixed characters of both parents from the point of view of their teenaged daughter. She is both a stand in for us and an agent of her own future decisions. The lives and the stakes in them are real, desperate, even eviscerating by the end. Everyone loses something—often a sense of righteousness or innocence—and is forced to confront their moral boundaries and bases of action. There are no “right” or “wrong” people here, just more or less flexible or limited ones—and the resolutions are not predicated on heroism but living with the consequences of one’s choices, for better or worse.

In one sense, this is a grueling and gloomy experience; in another, an exhilarating example of how lives really may be lived and changed—often at great sacrifices or reaffirmation of one’s personal beliefs… Therein lies the tragic dimension.  By the end they have all been drawn through these conflicts into some maturing equanimity and seeming stoicism in the face of the increasing chaos and difficult familial choices. A Separation is a significant film that leaves the viewer shaken, devastated even; yet, also exalted by the recognition that yes, this is the way social relations work, a mature, informed illustration of the human condition that can add to our wisdom about how we may lead our own lives. This seems to me about as much as one may ask of an imaginative experience at the movies.


Some other significant films with very broadly similar family themes this past month included:

Owen Moverman’s more melodramatic Rampart, with Woody Harrelson, Robin Wright and Ned Beatty, a Bad Lieutenant (directed by Abel Ferrara, with Harvey Keitel) -like theme of a corrupt cop. In this case his strange and complex home life is harrowingly delineated. It’s uniformly well-acted and intelligently, grittily written, but not quite so revelatory, or even a necessary variation on the corruption theme at its core, which has become its own genre, despite Harrelson’s bravura performance..

The Duplass Brothers’ Jeff Who Lives at Home, with Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon, focuses largely on intra-familial relations, including estrangements and alienation as its central themes surrounding each character’s deep well of sadness, achieving a certain not too forced sweetness in the characters’ recognitions and revelations by the end.

Paul Weiss’s Being Flynn, with Robert De Niro, Paul Dano, Julianne Moore and Olivia Thirlby, focuses on father-son conflicts, the parents’ relationship and the son’s with a girlfriend. This is all seen as part of the eponymous son’s (Dano) process of self-definition, with some harrowing  confrontations with his larger than life, narcissistic monster of a failed father, a fine De Niro.

Agnieszka Holland’s wrenching Holocaust drama, set in Lvov’s sewers, In Darkness, includes some of the same kinds of need for significant moral and ethical decision-making between couples as A Separation– with an ultimately moving Robert Wieckiewicz as a married Shindler’s List kind of character, who finds his own humanity under stress.

Also, there was Patrick Wang’s very impressive quirky debut as director, writer, and lead actor of In the Family. This touches upon fatherhood and gayness in the context of what constitutes “a family,” through the father-son bond. This is an eccentrically framed and photographed drama of good people and their different agendas and understandings around the issue of “parenting.” I found it earnest and deeply moving by the end—a pleasant surprise considering the possibilities of sentimentalizing in this material. The general restraint and sense of human good will at work was stirring and uplifting at last in its honest, earned resolution, coming full circle in the range of familial separations that drove these various domestic dramatic scenarios.

–David Schloss

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