I’m not entirely clear on the rules for Academy Award nominations, but I really don’t like that so many of the films which are nominated haven’t even had a real theatrical run in any city but New York or Los Angeles. That’s especially true with foreign film nominees, and this year was no exception. Bullhead was the only nominee I’d gotten to see before the nominations were announced, and that was because I got to see it at the Fantastic Fest film festival. A Separation seemed to be the front-runner in this category, so I was glad to have the opportunity to see it before the awards were actually announced.
The film opens with Simin hoping to convince a judge to allow her to divorce her husband Nader so that she can take their daughter Termeh out of the country to somewhere with less violence and more freedom. It seems that in Iran, a couple is only allowed to get divorced if both parties agree on all the terms, and Nader isn’t being as cooperative as Simin would like. He can’t go with them because he needs to stay and take care of his elderly father (who has been stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease), and while he’s willing to let his wife go, he doesn’t want her to take Termeh.
Simin may not be allowed to legally divorce Nader, but she doesn’t have to keep living with him. She goes to live with her mother, leaving no one to take care of his father during the day while Nader is at work. Nader hires Razieh to fill this role, but one day comes home to find her gone and his father lying on the floor with one arm tied to his bed. Upset about the way his father was treated, and believing that Razieh may have stolen money in addition to shirking her duties, Nader becomes perhaps a little too aggressive in his anger, and shortly thereafter he finds himself charged with a fairly serious crime.
First, it’s important to say that the hype is true, and that A Separation is an excellent film. It does get a little complex at times, with many people involved in the investigation and making contradictory claims, but it’s not all that difficult to keep things straight or to follow the film’s progress as additional information is revealed.
However, I was also surprised to find that it did not meet my expectations in one key area: that of the rules of Iranian society. I had expected it to have much more of a misogynistic, women-as-property feel to it, but it was instead quite democratic and even-handed in this regard. It’s possible that the film was censored by the Iranian government to portray their country in a more positive light, but it’s also possible that western propaganda has succeeded in convincing us that things are very different than they actually are. Religion does play a more significant role in the film than misogyny, but even there it’s done in a way that could have played out in a nearly identical manner if the story had been set in the United States instead of Iran.
That A Separation differs significantly in what I expected is slightly off-putting, but it also does make the film more relatable. Its Oscar nomination is completely deserved, but of the two I’ve seen in its category, I do think that Bullhead is the better film.