Nasty piece of work
RA SEPARATION, the Iranian film that won the major prizes last year at the Berlin and Sydney film festivals and, more recently, the Golden Globe award for best foreign film (and, at the time of going to press, was a strong chance for best foreign film Oscar), is likely to be a revelation to anyone unfamiliar with films from that country. The narrative hinges on very basic, very recognisable, themes: family, class, religion. The problems and frustrations faced by the characters should be easily identifiable to any family anywhere, yet Ashgar Farhadi’s wonderful OMAN Polanski’s film version of Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage has been adapted for the screen by the author in collaboration with the director. Exploring the thin veneer of civilisation in contemporary urban life, the film is a pithy, tart, funny, nasty piece of work enlivened by a quartet of interesting and accomplished actors.
The premise, not dissimilar to that of Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, is that while playing in a New York park, 11-year-old Zachary has struck Ethan, a boy his own age, with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth. Zachary’s parents, lawyer Alan (Christoph Waltz) and financial adviser Nancy (Kate Winslet), show up at the apartment of Ethan’s parents. Michael (John C. Reilly) has a company that sells bathroom fittings; Penny (Jodie Foster) is a socially conscious writer. Polite apologies over coffee and cobbler (a sort of fruit pie) gradually increase in tension as the scotch is produced and the visitors seem unable to leave, like characters from a Bunuel film.
This device probably worked better on stage. In the film, the repeated attempts of Alan and Nancy to leave the apartment, always thwarted by one thing or another, seem unduly contrived. But Carnage is a construct, an interior drama set in the US, unlike the play which was set in Paris, but entirely (apart from the opening and closing shots) filmed in a Paris studio on a set designed by veteran American Dean Tavoularis. Polanski could not, for welldocumented reasons, make it in New York.
The dialogue is smart and biting, and the actors rise to the occasion, with Foster’s distraught Penny and Waltz’s preoccupied and seemingly uninterested Alan making the most of their opportunities, the latter underplaying deliciously.
Carnage is a minor film in Polanski’s career and, though not unenjoyable and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, can’t unshackle itself from its theatrical origins in a way that, for example, the film version of the rather similar Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? achieved so successfully. film is very today.
It begins with a scene set in what appears to be a divorce court: a couple, Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi), face the judge — and, since the camera is placed in the position of the judge, they face us, the audience. Although they appear to be reasonably happily married, they have fallen out because Simin is determined to leave Iran taking their daughter Termeh, 11, with her, while Nader refuses to leave because his father is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
They agree to separate and Simin moves in with her parents. Nader is now forced to hire someone to care for his father (AliAsghar Shahbazi) during the day. Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a working-class woman whose husband is being hounded for unpaid debts, applies, but arrives with her small daughter and, on the first day, is deeply troubled at having to clean up the incontinent old man (she even makes a phone call, presumably to a mullah, for advice).
From here on events become more complicated, eventually bringing some of the participants to court. Yet the film never makes judgments, wisely (perhaps provocatively) leaving it to the viewer to make up his or her mind about the rights and wrongs of the ethical and moral dilemmas depicted. Indeed, the film concludes with a tantalising and crucial question, which will have audiences debating for a long time afterwards.
Watching A Separation is a bit like experiencing some of those exceptional films made by directors such as Milos Forman, Andrzej Wajda or Istvan Szabo in the communist-controlled countries of eastern Europe in the 60s.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that ‘‘ ordinary’’ people behave much the same way we do, even when the social and political arrangements are so different from our own. The fundamentals remain the same, even under fundamentalism.
The film never spells out why Simin wants to leave Iran and take her daughter with her, but it doesn’t need to. At the same time, everyone will identify with Nader’s concern
in Tehran for his sickly father. Thus Farhadi skilfully shifts audience sympathy back and forth between the central couple, and between them and the working-class couple who enter their lives.
Razieh and Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), it’s pretty evident, are more devout than their middle-class employer. Religion, class, moral issues — all these are observed by the watchful and exceedingly intelligent Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), the daughter whose future is the battleground on which her parents are waging war.
This is Farhadi’s fifth film as director — he previously made the excellent About Elly, in which a girl working for a middle-class couple disappears while they’re on holiday with friends — and it’s a considerable achievement, especially when you consider that provocative film directors aren’t immune from the wrath of the Iranian authorities. The imprisonment of fine director Jafar Panahi testifies to this. It’s also worth noting that A Separation was partly funded by the Asia-pacific Film Awards, a Queensland government initiative. TEN years after the horror of 9/11, British director Stephen Daldry — whose last film, The Reader, tackled, obliquely, the Holocaust — looks back on that terrible day through the eyes of 11-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Oskar’s beloved father, Tom (Tom Hanks), died along with thousands of others and like that other famous Oskar in the Gunther Grass novel and Volker Schlondorff film The Tin Drum, the boy is obsessive. It’s hinted that he may suffer from Asperger’s syndrome; he’s fiercely intelligent but has little in the way of social skills.
The film’s contrived screenplay, by Eric Roth, based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, takes him on a journey of discovery when he finds, among his dead father’s possessions, a key in an envelope marked ‘‘ Black’’. Where is the lock the key fits? Is his father setting him some kind of test? Accompanied for much of the time by an elderly man, known only as the Renter (Max von Sydow) who can’t, or won’t, talk, the boy attempts to locate all 472 Blacks in the New York phone book.
A boy who never stops talking and a man who never speaks: ultimately what should have been an intensely moving story fails to connect in any real way, though it’s beautifully made and acted.
John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, Christopher Waltz and Kate Winslet in Carnage