[A Separation Written & Directed by Asghar Farhadi Starring: Peyman Maadi, Leila Hatami, and Sareh Bayat MPAA: PG-13 – For Mature Thematic Material]
Even the most religious of all people sin. It’s known fact because, well, everyone sins. Everyone usually tries their best to do good so that good will find them, but it’s never that simple, isn’t it? Even priests are frequently caught with underage sex offenses. How is it possible that even the most pious people could commit an atrocity? Because, as Roger Ebert put it in his excellent review of today’s movie, “No list of rules can account for human feelings.”
Taking this quote into consideration, I imagine that this must make the citizens of countries like Iran live especially troubled lives. They live in a country that is still heavily dependent on religious tradition, to the point that adulterers are still stoned there. It’s literally something out of the Old Testament. And even then, it gets to the point that all of the restrictions can end up leading to even more moral complications.
A Separation chronicles the ultimate dilemma. Set in modern Iran, an upper-middle class married couple wishes to file for divorce. Not because they don’t still live each other, or because one has had an affair. Simin (Leila Hatami) wishes to move abroad and give her daughter Termeh (Serina Farhadi) a better life without the restrictions of Iranian law. However, her husband Nader (Peyman Maadi) wishes to stay so he can take care of his elderly father who’s been afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Termeh wishes to stay with her father, who she was always more fond of. Simin then decides to take Termeh with her, even if Nader doesn’t want to, so she files for divorce. The judge, however, doesn’t think that her case is “grave enough” for a divorce, so she remains stuck in the country. She moves out of the house to live with her parents, while Nader decides to hire a “nanny” of sorts to take care of his father while he’s away at work every day.
That’s the set-up that sets everything into motion, but trust me, you do not wish to know what happens in the rest of the movie. I went into it rather clean, unknowing of the various plot threads that would eventually unfold. And believe me, it’s best to come into this film unaware of anything about to happen. The dilemma ends up becoming even more painful, to the point that you’re wrestling with where the line between victim and villain is supposed to come in. I was unprepared for the questions A Separation asked me, and because of that, it ended up being one of the most intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking films I’ve seen in a long while.
The thing that makes A Separation‘s screenplay so rich is how empathetic it is of every single character on both sides of the argument. They’re all seen as victims of a broken system that has led them down a path of lies, corruption, and even death. The things that these people have to go through and the revelations about their decisions that are revealed are all unbelievable and even heart breaking.
It is this that makes A Separation much, much, much higher than your average “social issues” movie. “Social issues movie” you ask? It’s those movies that get a lot of kudos from critics and awards shows for being about big political themes but aren’t really that good as actual movies (This year’s choice was Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which got its undeserved Best Picture nomination by default because it was the “let’s all cry about 9/11” movie).
What makes A Separation different isn’t that it’s burying our heads into the message of the film, and it isn’t all about, “Hey, look at how ridiculous our legal system is!” Instead, the film wisely makes it about consequences. Our characters are ants who live under a magnifying glass, and now that the sun is up, we have to watch them suffer. This gets the audience to truly engage with the struggles of the film’s characters, and truly think about the implications of bad law-making.
It’s one of those rare films that is truly morally complex. There is no real hero or villain, no easy answers on who is right or wrong. What we are left with is a dilemma that might possibly never be solved. As per usual with films like this, the ending is deservedly ambiguous. I heard people in my screening say that they wanted an answer to the big question at the end before the credits came in. Don’t we all want the answer.
Final Verdict: It’s hard for me to articulate further into what makes A Separation worth your time without getting into spoilers. So trust me when I say that this film deserves every accolade it’s been getting. Smartly written, genuinely thought-provoking, morally ambiguous, never resorting to preachy message-mongering; A Separation is a rich film that will leave your intellect stimulated and your emotions satisfied.
That is all. See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to call the Iranian sin-hotline to know if posting movie reviews is a sin. Bye!
[Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close Written by Eric Roth & Directed by Stephen Daldry Starring: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, and Sandra Bullock MPAA: PG-13 – For Emotional Thematic Content, Some Disturbing Images, and Language]
Every year, there’s always that movie. You know what I’m talking about. That one movie that panders directly to the Academy voters; that attempts to cloy at the audience with heavy sentiment and big, sweeping, emotional material; and, indeed, manages to nab that Best Picture nomination despite being obvious Oscar bait. Indeed, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is that movie, but what was even more surprising was just how divisive and sometimes even vitriolic the reactions got. Whereas a lot of Oscar bait movies still get (sometimes deserved) critical praise such as The King’s Speech, this is a rare time where it seems like a majority of the critics have seen past the excessive Award-nabbing of this one certain film. As of this writing, with a 45% on Rotten Tomatoes, I’ve seen reviews call Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close “cloying”, “manipulative”, “offensive”, “pretentious”, “treacly”, “crass”, “irritating”, “obvious”, “exploitative”, “sappy”, “insufferable”, “rage-inducing”, “infuriating”, even “reprehensible”, I can go on, y’know…
When I initially saw the first trailer for this film, I was turned off in an instant. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close follows the story of a young boy named Oskar Schell (newcomer Thomas Horn) who copes with the insurmountable grief of losing his beloved father to the attacks on September 11th. That alone is a red flag. Scott Tobias of the AV Club said it best when he noted in his review that “It will always be too soon forExtremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” and it’s hard to disagree. 9/11 is still something that many Americans are still furiously grappling with a little over a decade later, and any movie dealing with the subject matter must tread lightly or it may very well get the scorn that this film has endured.
Having said all that, is Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close really that deserving of the bile it has garnered? Three words: Yes, and no. Indeed, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is, in the most honest way I could say it, a failure. That being said, it’s not a terrible movie, either; nor is it “offensive” or “reprehensible”. “Pretentious”, maybe, but certainly not “infuriating”. It’s heart is clearly in the right place. It is not exploitative, even though it is manipulative. However, it’s severely misguided.
This is gonna sound really off, but when I think of a “good 9/11 movie” (Yeah, I can’t believe I just typed that either), the reason why United 93 didn’t come across as offensive or exploitative was because it presented everything as raw and as factually as humanly possible. Knowing full well that it was dealing with difficult subject matter, director Paul Greengrass simply just created an uncannily authentic reenactment of the passengers in the United 93 airplane, without hiding behind pretensions of being an emotional consolation of the event.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. The story tries to capture the grief and anguish of the event through the eyes of a young boy who lost someone to the tragedy. Rather than objectively looking at the big picture, the film closely dissects a small piece of a larger puzzle.
It’s intentions are all well and good, but it’s the execution that makes the film simply not work like it should. A year after Oskar loses his father, he finds a key inside an envelope with the word “BLACK” written in capital letters. The envelope was inside a blue vase belonging to Oskar’s father. Assuming “BLACK” indicates a last name, Oskar decides to go on a journey throughout all of post-9/11 New York City to track down who Mr. or Mrs. Black could be, and in doing so, find the last, remaining connection to his father that is left.
There is nothing wrong with trying to show how a child would react to a traumatizing event such as this. I’d actually vouch that this is a very interesting topic to explore that could lead to genuine emotion, if handled correctly. The problem comes from the ridiculous contrivances that come through the film’s plot. Oskar doesn’t cope with his grief the way a normal kid would. Instead, Oskar embarks on this grand journey across New York that takes him throughout hundreds of different places meeting hundreds of different people.
I’m sorry if you hear me repeat the word “contrivance” one time too many, but there isn’t a better word to describe this plot. How can a boy of that age roam throughout New York City all by his lonesome, even though the boy in question has clearly stated that he has overwhelming fears of being outside and even socializing to begin with? And why does his mother seem to be so oblivious to the fact that her only son is just running off all over the city, and she doesn’t seem to care? To the film’s credit, the latter question is addressed, but the explanation it provides impossibly makes the whole mother angle even more contrived than it already was, believe it or not.
Then, when you bring along other elements such as a tambourine that Oskar rings next to his ears to calm him down, a mute man who speaks only through cryptically written notes, and then Oskar’s father who creates all these ridiculous games called “reconnaissance missions” in which Tom Hanks creates confounding expeditions designed to get Oskar to socially interact with the outside world; and all of a sudden, the whole thing feels more like a fairy tale than something out of real life. This wouldn’t be a bad idea if the film acknowledged its ridiculous and fantastical elements. Pan’s Labyrinth proved that you can expertly combine fantasy with a real-life war backdrop without sacrificing both ends. Instead though, the film just treats everything very matter-of-fact-ly, and as such, feels unrealistic and…well, contrived.
The other main flaw is that 9/11 didn’t feel important to the story. Pan’s Labyrinth really made excellent use of the Spanish Civil War backdrop while still keeping this central story of a girl trying to save her mother.Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is somewhat effective as a family drama about a boy coping with unspeakable loss, but the way the story is set up, it feels like that same thing could’ve easily been achieved with a different, more accessible tragedy like, say, a car crash. Because the film doesn’t really justify the use of its heavy subject matter, we are left with two conflicting issues that don’t mesh well together. I hear that the Jonathan Safran Foer novel of the same name implements the use of the 9/11 tragedy more naturally, but the film should’ve been more careful about that.
But let’s talk about the main deal-breaker for many people. No, it’s not even the 9/11 content, surprisingly enough. Actually, it’s the character of Oskar Schell played by newcoming young actor Thomas Horn, who was actually discovered by director Stephen Daldry when he was featured on children’s Jeopardy. Many have complained that Oskar is too precocious, and indeed he kind of is. However, did that make Oskar any less of an interesting character? Actually, no. In fact, I found him to be the most fascinating part of the movie.
You can argue that Oskar is, in fact, incredibly precocious and that Thomas Horn’s narration feels a little stilted, but I think the film offers a valid enough explanation for both arguments: It’s pretty clear that Oskar has Asperger’s syndrome. The movie itself tries to be coy about it, though, saying,”Oh, yeah, he was tested, and all; but, uh, the results were, y’know, inconclusive.” This doesn’t help. It’s pretty glaringly obvious that Oskar has Asperger’s syndrome. From his social awkwardness to his obsession with numbers and patterns, not one single line of dialogue can hide that fact.
Regardless, Thomas Horn is a surprisingly talented young actor that I’d like to see more of sometime soon. Sure, whenever he opens his mouth, it takes a while to get used to his peculiar diction, but he is truly gifted at conveying emotions through facial expressions. Considering how difficult it is to convey grief, especially with someone as young as Oskar, Horn does an exceptional job of showing the confusion, anger, and despair that Oskar must live through every waking moment of his life.
The performances really are one of the few saving graces of the film. Not only is Thomas Horn a great discovery, but Tom Hanks is likeable as ever in his small but important role as Oskar’s father, and Max von Sydow does a remarkable job at playing a character that doesn’t speak a single word throughout the film (even though his character has almost nothing to do with the larger plot, after close introspection). The only performance that I think didn’t fare as well was Sandra Bullock as Oskar’s mother, not because she’s weak, but because she’s not given much screen time and as such, not much to do other than look sad whenever she says good bye to Oskar before he leaves again.
But now we head back to the main question brought up earlier? Is the film offensively manipulative? Like I said before, it’s undeniably manipulative, but not offensively so. It’s a failure, but one that means well. It’s severely misguided but it’s heart is earnest and completely unartificial. It is very obvious in how it pulls the heartstrings, but there are some moments in it where those tugs are actually earned. His journey feels contrived, but Oskar as a character was fascinating and sympathetic. And while the film doesn’t provide the emotional catharsis to that great tragedy we all felt on September 11th like it thinks it does, it was at least noble in its efforts.
Final Verdict: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is an interesting failure of a movie. The contrived plot and weak justification for its use of the 9/11 tragedy get in the way of genuinely emotional moments featuring incredibly solid performances across the board, but it isn’t as “offensive” or “reprehensible” as many other critics have led you to believe. That being said, it still did not deserve its Best Picture nomination in the slightest.
That is all. If you liked this review, you can follow me on the Twitter-machine @Enigma6667 for more inert ramblings on film, games, and other such things.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, my magical tambourine will cure all my stress FOREVER!