Fraught Families: Elena, A Separation

FILM, Film Festivals

At the New Zealand International Film Festival: Duty, morality, and class intersect.

Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev caused such a stir with his first feature, The Return, that he has struggled ever since to recapture what made it so resonant. His latest, Elena, took the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes in May, and has attracted critical buzz to rival the reception of The Return. However, with a clumsy and reactionary narrative lurking beneath its compelling production values, Elena isn’t quite a match for Zvyagintsev’s beautiful debut.

Unlike The Return, Elena is claustrophobically lodged within interiors. Its protagonist is the titular middle-aged grandmother who is newly married to a rich businessman, but with a poor son (and grandson) in tow. She finds herself with competing demands when her rich husband refuses to give her slacker grandson money to attend university (for she fears his conscription into the army). Her conflicting duties are meant to evoke some sort of modern Russia: the intersection of familial duty and class, and its apparently destructive effect on human behaviour and choices.

The narrative goes out of its way to present the ‘poor’ family in the worst possible light. In a depiction worthy of a conservative-beneficiary bashing 101, Elena’s family are portrayed as lazy, bludging, violent, up-to-nothing fools. If there was a parallel to her husband (or some other historical context), it was hard to see. Furthermore, the son’s final rampage serves as a gratuitous exclamation mark on the contempt Zvyagintsev appears to have for his characters. It’s perhaps this lack of redemption, this seeming despair at the (non)-working classes taking over (again) that marks the narrative as a little creaky. Added to this is the underdeveloped character of Elena’s stepdaughter, and the thinly drawn relationship between Elena and her husband—all of which rendered Elena’s personal struggle too alienating and lopsided to truly engage. Meanwhile, a typically insistent Philip Glass score and muted, well-constructed camerawork gloss over the narrative flaws. An ultimately disappointing outing bereft of the impact it desperately sought.

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For a genuinely resonant piece of filmmaking with vaguely similar class concerns, Asghar Farhardi’s terrific moral drama A Separation was undoubtedly a festival highlight. Boasting some impressive acting and a dense, thematically rich script, it’s a film that demands multiple viewings—once, of course, that sledgehammer of an ending has worn off.

The film opens with married couple arguing over the terms of a divorce, directly to camera. The film ends with the married couple staring off into space, eyes directed away from camera—a sense of what one must lose in the attempt to maintain face, one’s social position, and one’s core beliefs. In between, the film touches on issues of family, gender, religion, class, and morality. Perhaps what makes A Separation far more successful than Elena is the sympathy displayed for its characters, and the tragically believable ‘grey’ in their behaviour (a sharp contrast to the characters’ black and white views).

Nader (Peyman Maodi) and Simin’s (Leila Hatami) divorce negotiations end in a stalemate over their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi)—Simin wants to leave Iran, but Nader wants to stay to look after his Alzheimer’s afflicted father. After Simin walks out, Nader needs to find someone to look after his father while he’s at work, and he hires poor, pregnant Razieh (Sareh Bayat). The devoutly religious Razieh realises the work is much more than she was initially told, and an ensuing series of events draws in her hot-tempered husband Hodjat (a stunning Shahab Hosseini), the judicial system, and a whole host of contemporary concerns (familial duty, morality, religion, the subjective nature of truth). The narrative is built on a number of contrivances and reveals, but the wonderfully drawn characters and astounding acting means the film is completely believable, and fully earns its Shakespearean climax.

The film’s set-up is similar to Michael Haneke’s Hidden (Caché), in which a comfortable middle class family is shaken up by the intrusion of the Other. Like Haneke, Farhadi isn’t interested necessarily in apportioning guilt (both sides can be read as guilty), but more so how people can react when thrown out of their societally apportioned roles. While largely sympathetic, Nader is far too stubborn and complacent to see what his behaviour is doing to the family. His conception of guilt is much more black and white than how Simin views his behaviour—he ultimately relies too much on the “it can’t be happening to me” position that Daniel Auteuil’s character in Hidden relied on, to the detriment of his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter. Hodjat is similarly compromised—a victim of economic trampling and loss, he is unable to control his behaviour when trying to account for his feelings. The film’s moral centre is the female characters: Termeh, Razieh, and Simin. After Nader cruelly places both Termeh and Razieh into situations involving swearing by the truth, Termeh in the end lies to protect her family, while Razieh is unable to do the same in order to protect her family—a cruel class divide that heightens the divisions between the haves and the have-nots.

A Separation also functions as a roller-coaster thriller, one that veers from reveal to reveal. I overheard the audience immediately afterwards expressing completely different views of the characters and the events—a tribute to the film’s ambiguity and moral complexity. The film is shot in a way that aids the performances, with close-ups on faces and rapid-fire movement to follow the quickly evolving storyline. It’s a sensitive and powerful piece of filmmaking—its novelistic themes deeply resonant, and certainly riveting enough to transcend its explicitly Iranian setting.

‘Elena’, Dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev
Russia, 2011; 109 minutes
In Russian with English subtitles
Screening: Auckland, Wellington.
‘A Separation’, Dir. Asghar Farhadi
Iran, 2011; 123 minutes
In Farsi with English subtitles
Voices: Leila Hatami, Peyman Moadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Babak Karimi, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Shirin Yazdanbakhsh, Kimia Hosseini, Merila Zarei.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.