The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

How NOT to review Iran’s first Oscar-winning movie, “A Separation”

On Sunday night, A Separation became the first Iranian (and Middle Eastern) film to pick up the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Although the film has already received rave reviews from mainstream critics, we asked a former expat in the Middle East who recently published a book about his adventures in Turkey, Matt Krause, to direct our attention to what’s interesting and important.

When The Displaced Nation asked me to review the Iranian film A Separation, I hadn’t seen it yet. I don’t follow film much, so even though the movie was up for a couple of Oscars, I hadn’t heard of it.

I am currently living in a very small town in California that’s far from Los Angeles and San Francisco. While I was searching for some alternative way to watch the movie, I read up on it. That was my first mistake.

Based on the descriptions I found, I thought it would be about some combination of seeking a better life abroad, caring for an elderly parent, and the strains of life affecting a marriage. These are all topics near and dear to my heart, and I looked forward to seeing what A Separation had to say about them from an Iranian viewpoint.

Before I found the movie I thought about what I would say in the review. I thought about how I would talk about seeking a better life abroad. I thought about how I would talk about caring for an elderly parent. I thought about how I would talk about the strains of life affecting a marriage. I thought about differences between American society and Iranian society. My review was practically written before I had even seen the movie.

I know, it was ridiculous for me to think I could form an opinion on this or any other movie without watching it with my own eyes, but that was Mistake No 2.

I finally located the movie and watched it. As the closing credits rolled I realized none of what I had planned to say was even remotely relevant. I sat in front of the screen slack-jawed wondering, “Whoa, what am I going to say about this one?”

A Separation is a great movie. It is one of the best movies I have seen in a long time and I would definitely recommend it.

Here are three of the elements I responded to most:

1) The theme transcends the particular to examine universal questions.

The movie’s opening scene introduces a married couple being pulled apart by the struggle between searching for a freer life and fulfilling obligations to others. I thought the movie would be about how that conflict plays out in this particular marriage. However, as the story unfolded, I realized this was not a movie about two people negotiating that conflict. It is about how both sides of that conflict duke it out inside of each one of us, how that internal conflict is an inescapable part of being human, and how, despite our attempts to quiet it, that conflict is unresolvable and will be with us until the day we die. We humans want to be free, but we also want others to depend on us.

2) The cinematography conveys the impression of a tight spiritual space.

When that struggle comes to a head, spiritual space can feel awfully tight. A Separation brings that tightness to life not only in the storyline, but also in the cinematography. The camera angles are tight and the spaces feel cramped, whether the scenes take place in a small apartment, a tiny government office, or a crowded city street. In fact, many of the movie’s scenes take place in rooms so crowded there is barely room for the characters to stand.

3) The action relies on tight story-telling, not music and special effects.

Following the movie’s storyline is excellent mental exercise. There are plot twists, and then there are twists to the plot twists, and then there are twists to those twists. Lesser movies use multiple plot twists to cover up for lazy writing, the writers perhaps hoping the plot twists will distract viewers from the writers’ own inability to tell a good story. In A Separation, however, storytelling discipline remains tight through each plot twist. The characters are as baffled by the twists as we are. The twists do not distract us, they simply allow us to view the central conflict from a new angle, before returning us to the original angle in the final scene.

A Separation uses little or no music, not until the end of the final scene when the closing credits are about to roll. Where most movies use music to guide the viewers through the building and release of tension, A Separation relies on tight storytelling to provide that guidance. The lack of music seems almost like the director accepted his own dare to raise the storytelling bar so high music would be unnecessary.

* * *

Watching A Separation was an excellent investment of my time, and I suspect you will think it is of yours, too. Don’t start out expecting this movie to represent anything except itself, though. Check your baggage at the door and listen to what this movie has to say.

Question: Have you seen A Separation and if so, what did you think?

As American from California who specializes in international trade and operations, MATT KRAUSE has spent forty percent of his life abroad, with stints living and working in China and Turkey. Last year he self-published his memoir, A Tight Wide-open Space: Finding love in a Muslim land. The book appeared on The Displaced Nation’s list Best of 2011: Books for, by and about Expats and was reviewed this month by Kate Allison. After finishing the book, Matt decided to walk 1,500 miles from Turkey to Jerusalem, a journey of about six months. You can read about it on his blog Heathen Pilgrim.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Random Nomad interview.

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One response to “How NOT to review Iran’s first Oscar-winning movie, “A Separation”

  1. David January 3, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    I finally saw the film last week (Dec/2012) and unfortunately found it to be terribly depressing. It seemed that there were no winners in this story and the bad news seemed relentless. In any case I came here hoping to salvage the time I spent watching the movie by at least gaining some cross-cultural insights. So, if this is not a realistic portrayal of Iranian life and that it lives in a world of its own, what film might you compare it to in this regard?

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