A Separation ★★★★★

A few years ago I was talking to a friend who had just seen David Gordon Green's "All the Real Girls." My friend isn't much of a film buff, but he knew that he'd seen something special. When I asked what he liked most about it, he didn't say anything about the acting or the direction or nuances of the plot. Instead, he simply said "because that stuff really happened."

Of course, my friend was not speaking literally. Instead, I think he was trying to talk about a feeling that the movie captured that transcends what we generally consider realism. It struck a nerve with him because it resonated in a deeper way than he could have ever expected. It was like being reminded of a scene from your life that you never actually experienced. In that sense, "A Separation" left me with an identical feeling. This is a film made with such delicacy, filled with such complex characters and built with tiny moments that build upon each other to create an amazingly passionate whole. I have never been in a situation even remotely close to the one that these characters find themselves in, but the film created so much empathy that I honestly felt like I had.

To describe the plot in any general terms would be doing "A Separation" a grave disservice. There is a "separation" established in the opening scene that sets everything in motion, but this isn't drama in any traditional sense. Instead, it's a portrait of a group of people who are forced to deal with the consequences of a series of tiny, rational, totally justifiable decisions that they've made. So it's a movie about life, basically: mine, yours, everybody's. It's not until you see a film like this that you realize how rare a jewel it is. There are no clearly-defined heroes or villains, and even when characters act counter to their best interests the audience always sees their rationale for doing so. That the characters are so balanced only heightens the tragedy that they are so fundamentally at odds with each other. This isn't a film about a nominal separation between two married people. Instead, it's about the fundamental gulf between where one person ends and another begins, and how desperately hard it can be to cross that divide.

And this mood isn't merely set by the story or performances, either. Every shot and edit is absolutely crucial. Notice how literally the director takes the theme of separation to heart. The characters navigate through sets where noticeable barriers are always keeping them apart -- glass, walls, furniture. See how the divides between middle- and lower-class, man and woman, and religion and secularism all keep the characters from physically engaging within the same space. Then notice how jarring it is in those moments when the physical and psychological boundaries are removed, and how disastrous the repercussions of physical contact can be to their lives.

There should really be a stronger word than "real" or "natural" to describe the mood that this film sets. I've never been to Iran, never been married, never had children, never cared for an elderly parent, never had to deal with bureaucratic Catch-22s or an oppressive religious structure, and yet I saw myself within every shot of this film. I know that it's become cliché to talk about the universal language of the cinema, but that's exactly what this film reinforces. This is a film that understands human nature better than virtually any that I've seen. Seriously, it's that good. This stuff really happened.

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