Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Separation and 2011 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Short Films

         Some Final Pre-Ceremony 2012 Oscar Ruminations
              Reviews by Ken Burke             A Separation
            Toward the beginning of the classic French drama from 1939, Jean Renoir’s La Régle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), an important character, Octave (played by Renoir), explains in one scene to another major player that in the contemporary world everyone lies (including “the cinema”) yet in another early scene he offers the counter observation that it’s essentially impossible to make value judgments on the actions and ideals of others because “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has their reasons.”  This seemingly simple explanation implies one of the most critical life lessons ever to be learned because it reminds us that no matter how difficult it may be to witness what is done by others, even when it’s done to us, the others likely had a compelling argument in their own minds as to why their decisions had to be carried out.  We may not be able to forgive what we experience from anyone else—or even from ourselves at times when all we can offer for reasons are rationalizations that wilt under intense scrutiny—but we must admit that we all approach life as a challenge that requires decisions, even when those decisions lead us into increasingly complex situations where the initial rationale gets less and less defendable and the likely outcome may bring more grief than was ever imagined when the stakes were lower and the choices seemed clearer ... although choices are likely never as clear as they may seem.
            In Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation we experience along with a family in contemporary Iran the difficulties that ensue when certain parts of an equation are purposely left out or concealed, as emotional combatants attempt to gain the upper hand in two strained marriages, pulling others into their whirlpool of despair and increasing the intensity of the confrontations as each complication adds more weight to the problems that were already bad enough even before we join these couples in mid-crisis as the film begins.  Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to take her daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), away from Iran to raise her in a more stable environment.  This is a difficult enough request for her to justify to the authorities—a judge in an Iranian court in this case—but it’s immediately more complicated because her husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi), refuses to leave as he needs to stay to take care of his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father (Ali-Asghar Shaahbazi).  We understand immediately that these people are trapped by circumstances that they can’t control, just as they are depicted in tight, confining spaces such as the courtroom (more what we’d call an office) and the various living quarters of the main characters.  But their troubled situations have just begun as events related to the daughter and the grandfather continue to spiral out of control.
       I hate to clutter up a review with a lot of recounted plot detail, especially because I'm not trying to fill up assigned space with run-on narrative events as dictated by an editor with preset, specified layout blocks on a page, but, given that this film is not in wide distribution yet and may not even be available in certain areas at all until it’s out on DVD (although the whole thing can be found at but with no subtitles, so if you don’t speak Farsi you’ll at least need to know what’s happening in it, as can be learned from, I’m going to reveal certain critical plot points because you really need to know what’s occurring with the intricacies of this film to appreciate any discussion of it.  Basically, Simin decides that she wants time away from Nader so she moves in with her mother for two weeks.  Therefore, a woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat)—who has her own very young daughter in tow at all times—must be hired as a caretaker for the grandfather but she doesn’t realize his mental confusion and lack of bodily control, so he’s much more of a task than she was prepared to manage (when he soils himself she even has to call the religious “police” to explain the circumstances and get permission to change him, given the restrictions of what she can see and know about him) so she tries to quit but relents because she needs the money.  On another day she leaves the old man alone for awhile (more on that later), so when Nader and Termeh come home they find the grandfather on the floor by his bed, thinking he’s dead.  He’s not, but Nader is furious and dismisses Razieh, further claiming that she stole some money in the apartment; she denies the theft, then refuses to leave until paid for her work so he angrily pushes her out the door, resulting in a bad tumble down the stairs, leading to the miscarriage of her baby.  This brings all of the adults except Granddad back to court where Nader is accused of knowingly abusing a pregnant woman; he denies that he heard any discussion of such, although his daughter is sure that he did (and he eventually admits it).  Razieh’s husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), is so infuriated that he insults the judge and is jailed; Simin is so appalled by the whole situation that she’s willing to essentially pay off Razieh and Hodjat to get rid of the mess but Nader resists.  He finally comes around but has since learned that Razieh was injured by a car the first day she was watching his father because Granddad slipped out of the apartment to buy a newspaper so when she found him she was bumped hard enough that the baby might have died before the fall down the stairs (that’s why she left Granddad alone later, so that she could be checked by a doctor). 

          Nader wants her to swear on the Quran that he was responsible for the miscarriage before he’ll pay reparations but she can’t do that because it puts her between her religious duty to be honest and her situation with her own extended family that she has not lied to them about the reason for the fetus’ death.  Ultimately, no payment is made and we’re left with Termeh making the decision as to which parent she will live with:  her father, which will force her mother to accept the burden of staying in Iran so as to not abandon the daughter, or her mother, which will shame her father whom she loves dearly (but now is ambivalent toward) and surely lead to departure overseas with her mother.  No one is blameless here (not even Simin who could have potentially prevented all of the ensuring chaos by not moving out of her home or Termeh who is sure that her father is lying but does not challenge him on it out of respect), yet everyone has “their reasons.”

            What none of these characters end up with, though, is resolution, so they all remain separated in a sense by the end of A Separation.  Simin will either leave Iran and live her life with a broken family structure or stay and endure a living situation both public and private that will constantly weigh on her; Nader may lose both wife and child but he has already lost much of their connection to him through his lying and stubborn insistence that he was the only one in the right through all the collisions; Termeh’s decision as to which parent to live with will only cause grief for all of them no matter what she chooses and she already has seen both parents fall short of her ideal perception of them; Razieh must live forever with the shame, at least to herself, of not having been truthful about the full circumstances of her miscarriage and the chaos that caused for her family; Hodjat now is distrustful of his wife’s honesty (to make it worse, she didn’t tell him at first that she was hired for the caretaker position so there is lingering tension about that betrayal also); and even Granddad remains just a burden for his family and the ultimate reason for all of the disruption even though he’s innocent of any intentional turmoil because, as Simin notes early on to Nader, he doesn’t even know who his son is anymore or what’s going on around him as his family continues to disintegrate.
            This is the only one of the 5 nominees for Best Foreign Language Film that I’ve even had the option of seeing so I could be way off-base in both preferring it and predicting its win at the upcoming Oscars ceremony, but I make that decision because of my respect for A Separation and the fact that it was included in several Top 10 lists for 2011 films.  No matter, though, because I have high respect for the nature and the telling of this story and will be even more pleased if one of the other contenders produces an even better result.

          If you want to explore A Separation in more detail here are some suggested links:  (this is the entire film but with no subtitles so if you don’t speak the language you’ll just have to get the visual sense of how it develops) 
 2011 Live-Action Short Films            Tuba Atlantic

            While the program of Oscar-nominated short films in both the animated and live-action categories is available in certain markets these films may be hard to come by so I’m going to be completely revealing in what I note on their plot points as many of you may not have any chance to see them at all unless they find their way to You Tube.  Seemingly that has happened already because if you go there and search for “Oscar Nominated Short Films 2012” you get a site with a link to, but my browsing around at this location turned up nothing about the Oscar-nominated shorts after all (maybe that’s my problem and not the site’s, but anyway no luck and no soup for me).  You can find composite reviews at the following sites if you’re interested, but it’s hit and miss as to how much information you’ll be able to get on individual films:

            So, I’ll just make a few comments about each of the nominated live-action short films, beginning with my preference for the Oscar winner, the wonderfully weird Tuba Atlantic by Hallvar Witzø (Norway; you can get a little about it at
9F5F07B9A; however, this is not a trailer but the production team’s enthusiastic reaction when they learned of their nomination).  In my experience Scandinavians can display wicked senses of humor, although I think first of Finland in that regard rather than Norway.  Still, Tuba Atlantic is as wacky as you could wish for, as Oskar (Edvard Hægstead), an elderly man, is given a six-days-to-live sentence by his doctor, to which he mostly responds with increased fervor for his seeming life-passion: killing as many as possible of the sea gulls that annoy him in his coast-side home.  To give him comfort, which he clearly doesn’t want, a peppy young woman, Inger (Ingrid Viken), comes to cheer him up and gain her desired membership in the Angel of Death subgroup of the Jesus Club.  She does get him to admit that he has one unresolved quest, that of contacting his estranged, long-departed brother, who now may be living in New Jersey, by sending him the sound of a giant homemade tuba across the Atlantic if the wind would ever blow from the west (given that the sound would have to travel to the west from Norway I never quite understood the geography of this film but I doubt that’s supposed to be a major consideration).  The wind finally changes to the needed direction, the tuba’s sound does reach his brother (along with killing a lot of seagulls and blowing out the windows of the hospital near Oskar), Oskar dies, the soundtrack serenades him with a men’s chorus singing “Anchors Aweigh” (in English, for whatever reason), and a seagull poops on Inger, so she takes up Oskar’s heavy artillery and continues his battle with the birds.

          I’d like to think that the Oscar voters would vote for Oskar, but the level of absurdity may be too much for them so maybe they’d be more inclined toward my second choice.

            My next favorite would be the German production set in India, Raju, by Max Zähle and Stefan Gieren of the Hamburg Media School (trailer clip at  This one teaches an unexpected moral lesson that doesn’t come to a resolution the way the others do but its ambiguous ending provides lots of useful post-screening conversation (or post-reading in this case, for those of you who don’t find yourselves with direct access to the film).  The situation is as straightforward as Tuba Atlantic is a constant swerve from expectations.  A German couple, Jan and Sarah Fischer (Wotan Wilke Möhring and Julia Richter), go to India to adopt an orphan, but no sooner do they get him to their hotel than crisis strikes.  The new father takes the very young boy out for a tour of the city, but Raju (Krish Gupta) wanders away, leaving Dad frantic and Mom angry at her husband’s incompetence.  In a way, Jan’s desperate search for his lost child reminds me of the parallel tragic loss in the Italian neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) except now it’s a family member seemingly gone for good in Raju rather than the vital conveyance needed to provide the family’s sustenance in the older feature film.  Raju eventually returns to the hotel on his own, but in the meantime as Jan seeks help through an agency he finds the boy’s photo in a book of missing children, realizing that his son was kidnapped by the orphanage as were many other children in order to get them set up with adoptive parents who will take them away to a better life.  Despite Sarah’s argument that returning Raju to his birth parents will condemn him to a future of miserable poverty Jan makes the decision that he must take the boy back to his real home.  We don’t know for sure what will come of all this as we leave father and son in a taxi heading back to Raju’s original residence and Sarah horrified, only aware after the fact of her husband’s decision.

            This film provides an insightful look at a completely unexpected ethical dilemma and the related questions of what is the greater good in a complex, likely lose-lose situation.  I’m fascinated with the narrative twists in Tuba Atlantic but would have no problem seeing the Oscar go to Raju, a solid choice as well.

            The more I think about it, though, I’m leaning toward a prediction that the Academy voters will prefer The Shore by Terry George and Oolagh George (Northern Ireland; trailer clip at  This is a more traditional story, even in its relatively brief length; features an actor, Ciarán Hinds, who’s recently graced screens in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson) and The Woman in Black (James Watkins); and is co-directed by two-time Oscar nominee Terry George (for Original Screenplay [Hotel Rwanda, also directed by him, 2004], and Adapted Screenplay [In the Name of the Father, Jim Sheridan, 1993]).  Given these industry links and the story’s well-told but sentimental structure of a man, Joe (Hinds), who comes back to his ancestral coastal village, along with his adult daughter (Kerry Condon), after many years to reconcile with Mary (Maggie Cronin), the fiancée that he left behind, and Paddy (Conleth Hill), the close friend/virtual brother who married her but always felt guilt that he’s the one who stole Mary away.  It’s a very simple tale where one misunderstanding leads to a short comic chase through the muddy shoreline but otherwise everyone is earnest and initially hesitant to push through the silence of the lost years, although eventually they all embrace and sing a song together at a beachside dinner (Marty Robbins’ “Devil Woman” in which the singer “told Mary about her, told her of my great sin, but Mary cried and forgave me …” etc.; take a listen if you like to the original at where you get more references to seagulls and shores, an ongoing theme in these short film reviews it seems), with the final realization that Joe promised he’d name his first child after Paddy, which is what happened with daughter Patricia who now goes by Pat. 

          And there was nary a dry eye in the theatre nor an uneaten mussel on the beach as this short film concludes.  It’s almost the most unoriginal of the bunch (see below), but it has sweet sentiments for all involved and because of some of those involved I’m inclined to think that the Academy voters may be moved most of all by this one.

            That leaves Pentecost by Peter McDonald and Eimear O’Kane (Ireland; you can see the trailer clip at and Time Freak by Andrew Bowler and Gigi Causey (USA; its trailer clip can be found at as contenders in this category.  The first is the more interesting one for me (although Time Freak has some great humor but it feels too recycled; more on that in a minute) because it’s based on a clever metaphor and ends with a largely unexpected action.  Pentecost takes us back to 1977 Ireland in a small town where a homeboy-made-good—very good; in fact, he’s risen to the status of archbishop—is coming back to celebrate a mass with the locals.  The problem is that due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control the only altar boy with experience swinging the required incense burner is Damien (Scott Graham) who recently was suspended from his duties—and from being allowed to followed his beloved Liverpool football (soccer) team on the radio as they pursue their first European Cup final—because his last wild swing knocked Father O’Toole (Eamonn Hunt) off the altar.  Damien’s football fever is further stirred by the pumped-up “locker room” pep talk the head priest gives his altar boys “team” before the service, a nice bit of whimsy that seems to be successful in carrying them to victory (a flawless ceremony with the esteemed cleric) until the sports comparisons get the best of Damien at the end and he kicks the burner toward the archbishop as if he were scoring a goal.  It’s cute and mildly crazy but not really the stuff of an Oscar statue (not that I’m willing to bet on many of my predictions given my track record in guessing the unpredictable choices of Academy voters).

            Similarly, Time Freak would seem to have no chance of winning the award because of its obvious parallels with Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993), unless the memories of that Bill Murray classic provide enough good vibes to allow this shorty (literally, the shortest one of the shorts in this category) to snatch a statue while seemingly taking an encore bow for the earlier feature.  In Time Freak, crazed inventor Stillman (Michael Nathanson) shares the earth-shattering discovery of his time machine with roommate Evan (John Conor Brooke), but we learn that instead of using his grand device to explore the wonders of the past—or even the future—Stillman has become fixated on trying to impress local girl Debbie (Emilea Wilson) and make amends with a merchant, so he just keeps going back to the same minor events of one day ago time and again, trying to perfect their outcome or at least erase the guilt about his reactions.  Whereas Murray had no control over his endless repetition of a specific Feb. 2, Stillman has only his own neuroses to blame for never being either satisfied with his reconstructions of the past or his inability to reconstruct effectively, leading to his constant determination to finally get one (or two) minor event(s) right so that he can move on to more useful matters.  Rather than wait for a Murray-like breakthrough after dozens of attempts, Evan finally commandeers the machine and sends them both back to a time when Stillman was choosing an elective college course.  Evan is now able to steer his friend to something more innocuous than quantum physics so that he doesn’t drive them both crazy with his minutia obsessions.  It’s all very cute, but you can’t help but think that you’ve seen it before … and before … and …

            We’ll see soon enough what the Academy voters have to say about A Separation and The Shore (or any of their competition, with my heart behind Tuba Atlantic in the Live-Action shorts), but I’ve learned long ago to never expect anything as a sure thing from this bunch now that Walt Disney is dead (we assume), because in his time he won 26 of these golden statues (more fascinating Oscar trivia awaits you at where you’ll find that even if you have been nominated in 11 categories—as Hugo [Martin Scorsese] is this year—that you might still go home empty-handed, as with The Turning Point [Herbert Ross, 1977] and The Color Purple [Steven Spielberg, 1985] or you might clean up as with Ben-Hur [William Wyler, 1959], Titanic [James Cameron, 1997], and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [Peter Jackson, 2003], all with 11 wins).

We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.

Please note that to Post a Comment you need to either have a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

No comments:

Post a Comment