Sunday, March 4, 2012

"A Separation": Modern Tragedy

I couldn't wait. Stereotype of the loud Black moviegoer be damned! I needed to get a million ideas out. As the movie credits rolled, they all came rushing out. 

My friend and I immediately launched into a heated debate/discussion/comparison of what we saw. The conversation spilled out into the hallway, up the stairs, out Lincoln Center Movies, and up the street for several blocks. The only reason we stopped talking was to look for a place to sit down so we could continue arguing about the movie. 

"A Separation" isn't just a seasonal movie, but one of the most powerful movies of this generation. The story isn't a drama or suspenseful in the usual ways. It's aim is a lot higher and it hits the mark most of the time. "A Separation" is a tragedy. 

The story seemed pretty mundane. Simin, an educated Iranian woman, wants to leave Iran and take her family away. Her husband, Nader, refuses to leave his Alzheimer-stricken father behind. Fearing a loss opportunity, Simin files for divorce. Nader is ambivalent to her efforts -not because he doesn't care about his wife of 14 years- but because his pride won't let him express his love. Offended by the filing, he sits in court allowing the proceedings to go on. But the grounds for divorce are not warranted. The case is dismissed and Simin's daughter, Termeh, can't leave the country without her father's permission. By simply refusing to act one way or the other, Nader wins the case by default. 

Seeking to put pressure on him, Simin decides to move back home with her mother. Unwilling to apologize or reconcile, Nader decides to hire someone to take care of his father now that his wife is gone. He hires a very religious woman to take care of his father. But the demented old man proves too much for the caretaker, who also happens to be pregnant. A tragic accident ensues (but not for the reasons it initially seems) and it triggers Nader being brought to trial for harming the pregnant woman. 

The pregnant woman's has a husband who is deeply in debt and religious fanatic. He's angry and quick to bring up the wrath of God. But it is the slow steady injustice of man and society which gets turned against every one in the movie, bit by bit. "A Separation" is about the divide that begins with a husband and wife, and then quickly spreads to the household, the surrounding neighborhood, the school, and entire community. 

All the polite rules and laws are slowly violated. It's never intentional or in a flagrant way. Everyone is reasonable at the core, even the religiously fanatic husband has his air-tight logic. But no one is willing to compromise. Even when wives and sisters reach out to each other, there's always an asterik mark by the apology. Nothing is ever forgotten or forgiven. You realize that this is a society in which everyone is always on trial and presumed guilty. The characters shows no deep remorse or compassion, but only anxiety followed by condemnation and fear. Filed complaints are countered and accuser becomes the accused and must defend their actions. When they are convicted, they beg for forgiveness but the judge coolly stares down at his papers and says 'my hands are tied.' 

The ultimate point I took away from "A Separation" is what the title means. It doesn't just mean divorce and a split of family. The director is talking about the ultimate separation: the one from God.  In a world separated from God, there can only be fear, condemnation, and tragedy. Fueled by their own righteousness, the tragic characters embark upon a doomed mission of justice. But there can be no true justice in a separated world. There is only soul-crushing bureaucracy, dysfunctional families, and isolation. Under these conditions, a fully-empowered human soul can't exist. Society's iinstitutions -family, justice, education, health care- slowly chip away at the individual's integrity. 

In the end, all of the characters become loners. They have been set loose into the world and are at a loss for meaning. The separation from God makes them condemned by their own actions and choices. That is the tragedy. God didn't condemn them. Man condemns himself. 

As that last realization unfolded before me, I sat there amazed. This was a 21st century tale on par with "The Crucible" or "Oedipus Rex." It made me reflect on my own life and behaviors. As we walked down the street, I  wondered how many times I was living my life in the characters in the movie: anxious, quick to pass judgment, and separated from my Divinity. What could ensue from this behavior except my own tragic condemnation? How many times a day am I playing out my own tragedy?

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