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December 13, 2013
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Film Friday: A Separation and Haywire
An Iranian movie for Iranians; an action movie for the sake of action.

Few of the Iranian films we see in North America are seen by Iranian people. Often, they aren’t even intended to be. Directors like Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar), and Jafhar Panahi (Offside) tailor their films to international audiences, largely because Iranian censors aren’t likely to let their leftist works get shown inside the country anyway. As a result, their films often have an outside-looking-in quality — part of their function is to explain Iran to the rest of the world.

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation — which just made the Oscar shortlist for best foreign-language film and is heavily favoured to win the prize — is different. The 40-year-old Farhadi is younger than many of Iran’s best-known directors, and he’s not as focussed on exposing the harsh realities of life there. Instead, he makes films, not with outrage, but with resignation and a sense of learned futility.

Nothing that passes in front of his camera surprises him, and he doesn’t make a big thing of the everyday absurdities that might throw Westerners. (Like when a young woman calls a religious hotline to see if it’s ok for her to change an old man’s diaper.) Farhadi also isn’t particularly concerned with establishing a sense of place. Much of the film is set indoors — in private apartments, or in the offices of lawyers and city officials — which has the effect of making us feel less like tourists and more like locals. It helps that Farhadi is one of the few Iranian directors to use trained actors. Instead of documentary-style figures representing an entire oppressed population, we get individuals with unique virtues and flaws.

A Separation is about a small but sadly intractable marital dispute. Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a secular, middle-class couple barely hanging on in modern-day Tehran, and the film opens with the two sitting before an unseen magistrate, petitioning for a divorce. Simin doesn’t want to leave Nader — she just wants to leave the country for the sake of their 11-year-old daughter, but Nader won’t go because he has to take care of his aging, senile father. Simin is at her wits’ end, and yet the magistrate doesn’t seem to notice or care. Before dismissing her request, he chastises her for bothering him with it in the first place. “Your problem is a small problem,” he sniffs.

Afterwards, Simin tries to convince her child, the studious and grave-looking Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter), to at least move with her across town to her parents’ house, but Termeh refuses. Unable to remain, Simin moves anyway, triggering an elaborate and ultimately tragic series of events that engulfs not just one but two families.

The great virtue of Farhadi’s screenplay — which escalates until practically all of the characters are pitted against one another — is that there are no heroes or villains in it. There’s just an assortment of well-meaning individuals trying to maintain their integrity and their values in the face of a legal system that respects neither. And Farhadi cleverly orders events so that our sympathies keep shifting. Nader, for instance, comes across as an inflexible grump initially, then later as a touchingly upstanding guy, then later still as too prideful for his own good. The reality, of course, is that he’s all of those things at once, and probably much more besides.

If the film has a flaw, it’s Farhadi’s rather too clinical directorial style. Throughout, he simply plants the camera in front of his actors and lets them have at it. It’s clear the approach is deliberate — he’s pointedly adopting the cold, institutional perspective of the unseen magistrate from the opening scene — but it doesn’t do much to get us emotionally involved. Though Farhadi makes us sympathize deeply with his characters, he never quite makes us feel for them. The one significant exception is Sarina Farhadi’s caught-in-the-middle Termeh, who looks so desolate that we long for her to find some form of happiness. But it’s heartbreakingly clear that, of all the characters, she’s the least likely to. No matter how badly things end for her parents, they’ll end worse for her, and Farhadi leaves us with a wrenching cliffhanger: Termeh alone, forced to make an impossible decision.

Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire isn’t much of a movie — it’s more of a delivery device for foot chases and ass-kickings. But on that level it’s superb. Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs built the film around star Gina Carano, a renowned mixed martial-arts expert who’d never acted before, and she’s a knockout. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a female action star (or, come to think of it, many male actions stars) kick butt this convincingly. Usually, when a woman gets brutally punched and beaten onscreen — even a tough chick like Angelina Jolie — I find it hard to watch, but here it’s so obvious Carano can take it that I never flinched. (Ah, progress.) It’s also obvious she can dish it out. In the first scene, she goes mano a mano with Channing Tatum in a diner and outclasses him on every level. Later, when she tangles with the lithe Michael Fassbender in a hotel room, I worried more about him than I did her. While Carano’s acting chops may not be fully taxed here, she does what’s needed and then some. Even in repose, she commands the camera. Her eyes say: don’t even think of fucking with me.

The plot is something about Carano’s character, a secret agent, being betrayed by her own spy network, and it’s merely a solid, generic framework. (Dobbs provides a number of good lines, though — Carano’s interactions with a scared kid played by Michael Angarano are particularly funny.) Soderbergh brings his usual polish and intelligence to the material, but he also brings his usual lack of passion. In a recent, admirably candid interview with websiteThe Playlist, he claims to have given up on “serious” movies and admits he’s always been more of a technician than an artist. “I’m better now than I was when I started… but at stuff that’s superficial — craft, filtering, problem solving,” he says. “[I haven't made] something that’s just off the chart.” Soderbergh is maybe being a bit hard on himself, but on the whole, I agree with him. I found his recent Contagion, for instance, to be too sterile for the subject matter. Millions of people wiped out by plague, and Soderbergh seemed to have no feelings about it one way or the other. If you ask me, he’s always been at his best with cool, throwaway material like Haywire or The Limey or Out of Sight. When he tries for depth, he only reveals his lack of it.

Scott MacDonald is Toronto Standard’s film critic.

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