Nasty piece of work

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

specif­i­cally lo­cated

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

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