A Separation

Spoiler-free Film Review!

By: Asghar Farhadi

When: 2011

Interesting and random fact: The Iranian government refused permission to shoot A Separation until poor Mr. Farhadi apologized for a speech in support of liberal filmmakers he’d given earlier.

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This is one of the best-reviewed Persian films of all time.

There are some things, I believe, that are eternal in human society. I’ve been putting watching this off for too long, but I’m glad I did, though it’s kept me up till midnight on a Saturday. A Separation is one of the few films I’ve watched that manages to satisfactorily explore all of them, and while staying on the right side of Iranian censors to boot. It’s a masterpiece: culturally, socially, and dramatically complex, keeping up a quick pace throughout, and constantly reinventing the narrative to explore ideas of morality and honour.

What is eternal in human society? The first is inequality; the second is religion, the third is emotional suffering. How can all three be explored? Farhadi’s solution is to use a painfully normal scenario: a divorce, and the chaos that engulfs two families in its aftermath.

I’ve recently been reading on post-revolution Iran and have been quite interested to see how similar the Iranian middle class is to our own. They are pretty broadly secular, and their conformity to religious/cultural norms is limited to wearing a headscarf in public, just about. They’re cosmopolitan, well-educated, and, just like us, they don’t really seem to see the lower classes as completely human (though I must point out that at least they let their domestic help sit on their chairs – middle-class families in India don’t even do that, to say nothing of the upper class).

A Separation is the story of just such a family. Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi play Simin and Nader, a teacher and a banker going through a divorce. Simin wishes to take their daughter and settle abroad; Nader refuses to abandon his father, an Alzheimer’s patient. Simin asks for a divorce and moves to her mother’s. Nader hires a caregiver for his father, a devout woman from a poor background.

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The tragedy of Alzheimer’s is an unspoken theme.

Tragedy ensues. Nothing so crass as an affair, I assure you.

The film is shot almost documentary-style, with an imperfect, wobbly camera that draws you deeper and deeper into the tragedy. At no point do you feel that you’re not in the film, feeling the family’s pain, puzzling over the morality of their actions. The illusion is potent – I left the film exhausted. The performances are beyond believable – you’re not watching actors in a role, you’re watching a family tear itself apart. It hits hard.

 

“.. You’re watching a family tear itself apart. It hits hard.”

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That’s the judge speaking, a proxy for the audience, almost.

There’s no happy ending, just like in real life. People have irreconcilable differences, things that would appear ridiculous (as the first judge they visit tells the protagonists) but are merely scapegoats for simmering resentments. Simin isn’t asking for a divorce because she wants to go abroad, she’s asking because she’s hurt that Nader is willing to let go of a life they’ve built together for fourteen years without even trying to ask her to stay. And their daughter is the one who must pay the price for their pride, even as each family in the film pays a price for the mens’ outdated ideas of “honour”.

Farhadi makes interesting use of space and lighting. The “separation” of Simin and Nader is metaphorically as well as literally represented through their dialogue, screens and doors; the grungy, confused bus commute of Razieh (the domestic help) and her little daughter is contrasted with Nader’s driving around a sedan with his invalid father in tow.

As a social commentary, the contrast I outlined between prosperous, secular Iran and poor, religious Iran is prevalent throughout. Gender inequality is stark in the lower classes, and negligible in the upper. A few scenes highlight the dichotomy – the middle class seems to care not a fig about something as sacred as swearing on the Qur’an, but Razieh calls a preacher to confirm that it’s morally acceptable to take a job where she would be required to undress a helpless old gentleman. Her husband, later in the film, addresses Nader and Simin in terms that I’m sure every proletarian has ever wanted to scream at the bourgeois. And the difficulty they face in trying to get justice for what happens, against a richer man – whether or not anyone was morally responsible – is palpable.

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What is the message that the film is trying to convey? This, I think, is it. Justice is an illusion. That’s the disturbing truth behind all the culture and religion we hide behind. The only thing permanent is pain, whether it’s 21st century Iran or another other time and place. In our quest to be whole, we are more alone than ever.

“Justice is an illusion.”

Verdict: A tragic family drama; a shrewd social commentary; a thriller par excellence. Must watch!

 

 

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Lord of Light

Book Review!

By: Roger Zelazny

When: 1968

Interesting and random fact: Lord of Light was the script that was used as a cover for the “film crew” that rescued the besieged diplomats in the American Embassy in Tehran in the Iranian Revolution, as depicted in the film Argo.

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I don’t normally review books as soon as I’ve read them, but Lord of Light is one that definitely deserves an exception. Even on the face of it, the concept is fascinating. A la Dan Simmons’ 2003 masterpiece, IliumLord of Light is set in a dystopian future, where some humans in possession of advanced technology have set themselves up as gods and lord it over the masses.

lordoflightLord of Light is in some ways a product of its times, reflecting the growing fascination with Indian culture that Western nations underwent in the late ’60s and early 70’s, with the Beetles visiting and the beginnings of “hippie” counterculture, and the visual imagery of the book reflects that, with intense colours and patterns. In that sense, it does reflect some older ways of thinking about and representing the intellectual legacy of the subcontinent, with some clear elements from the Swinging Sixties – the “gods” having affairs being an example. The overall tone, however, is deeply respectful of Indian philosophy, criticizing more than anything else the absurdity of religious dogma. The sci-fi, including concepts such as the transmigration of the soul, mind uploading, and genetic engineering, treads a fine line between myth and later concepts. These themes have inspired generations of cyberpunk writers, but Lord of Light is head and shoulders above the rest – the father of cyberpunk, as it were.

What makes Zelazny’s work so different? Because these aren’t your typical Western gods – they’re Indian, Hindu. And the racial diversity of the cast of characters is surprising, with a surprising number of non-whites as main and supporting characters, including the protagonist: known to his followers as Mahasamatman (“Great-Souled”), Maitreya (“Lord of Light”), and Buddha (“Enlightened One”), but who prefers to be called Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god.

Now let’s talk about the setting. The story takes place on an unidentified planet, colonized by humankind after the fall of “long-vanquished Urath” (Earth). The crew of a colony ship, The Star of India, monopolized the tech on the ship, conquered the planet from its former inhabitants, now called demons, and eventually claimed godhood. The parallels to older Aryan Invasion Theories are clear and striking.

The gods have set up a karmic system to “ensure stability”: live your life. If you sin, there are prayer machines in temples where you can pay money to beam transmissions to heaven (a futuristic bio-dome where the gods live their happy lives) for the remission of sin. When your body grows too old, you can apply for a new one, after your brain is scanned to determine whether you’ve lived life according to the laws of the gods. Scientific innovator? Too bad, you’re going to be a female, probably a donkey or an ape. Pious rich man? Male brahmin!

Again, an eloquent critique of the ridiculous superstition and caste theories that have plagued Hinduism for centuries, and the inherent hypocrisy of organised religion. Into this fray, enter Siddhartha: one of the original crew members of the Star of India, who played a great role in the conquest of the planet, and who remembers the gods back when they too were puny mortals. He wants to overthrow what he knows to be false superstition, and so he rediscovers an old doctrine which he presents as his own, the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha – a deeper sort of metaphysics that revolutionises the planet and the older religious order. Again, a clear parallel to history.

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The goddess Kali. Without spoiling anything, her character arc is interesting, and quite feminist.

Lord of Light is a book of magnificent scope and is an eloquent presentation of how humanity has historically interacted with religion and inequality. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s got doomed romance, great sci-fi, a little Christian intolerance, and plenty of interesting quotes and teachings from the actual Buddha in addition to deep and complex metaphysical ideas from the Upanishads and other Indian scriptures. I was particularly struck by a passage which likened the rise and fall of human civilisation to the inevitable progress of a day – dawn, a chaotic noon, and an inevitable decline. Zelazny’s really done some fantastic research work, and the world is believable and alive. I came away with a great deal of respect for the Buddha, and was, quite frankly, wowed by his silent critique of organized religion.

 

The work is, in a sense, post-structural, beginning near the chronological ending, and then narrating episodes from Sam’s life gradually leading up to the climax. It is a little difficult to get into, but there’s an interesting sense of mystery that unfolds satisfactorily throughout. I wasn’t completely sold on the climax, however, and felt that it lacked the intellectual depth that characterised the rest of the book. The conclusion, too, was hazy, but offered at least some satisfaction.

The verdict: Fan of Hinduism, Buddhism, India, sci-fi, one of the above, or all of the above? Then this book is a must-read.

Image credits to jubjubjedi on DeviantArt: for some great cyberpunk interpretations of the book, check out his page.