Sydney Film Festival 2011 – ‘A Separation’ takes the Competition Prize

[27 June 2011]

By Andrew Blackie

The Sydney Film Festival has wrapped for another year, and as the Arab Spring unfolds across the Middle-East, films from that region held the attention of the competition’s jury. Headed by Chinese director Chen Kaige, the Sydney Film Festival prize was awarded to the powerhouse Iranian drama A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi. This follows in the footsteps of the Berlin Film Festival, at which the film was also awarded the Golden Bear. Special mention went to Mohamed Diab’s Cairo 678, an Egyptian film which tackles similar themes to A Separation. The Tree of Life, which screened in competition and took the Palme d’Or at Cannes, was passed up altogether.

I am totally enthralled by the win of A Separation. It is a formally accomplished, highly illustrative musing on contemporary Iranian life. When a husband and wife controversially want to divorce, the husband (Peiman Ma’adi) hires a maid, played by Sareh Bayat, to look after his elderly father, who has Alzheimer’s. To reveal more would be to give too much away, but they all end up in a court case in which all their lives are at stake.

Farhadi demonstrates a control and sophistication over his film, which he has written, directed and produced. Over its 123 minutes, the way it unfolds is breath-taking, like a gathering storm; you leave the cinema feeling as if you have experienced their plight with them, and understand the society in which they live. Integral to its success are the interactions between its characters, and the complex emotions that govern their relationships. It is a film driven simply by dialogue and story, without anything added; a reminder of what the power of really great film can do.

Two of its themes are the emphasis on religion in Iran and female voicelessness – Bayat’s devout character is continually adjusting her hijab to cover her face, as if ashamed. A crucial point in the story revolves around the eleven-year old daughter of the divorcing couple, played by Farhadi’s own daughter Sarina, in a very moving performance. Much of A Separation is seen through her eyes, as she is sidelined and somewhat manipulated by her parents. Eventually it all comes down to her, and the film’s surprise ending is perfect.

According to IMDB, A Separation is to be released in the UK in July. Let’s hope that, with the Golden Bear’s prestige and the Sydney Film Festival cash prize, the film will find a major distributor for wider release. This is an incendiary film that refuses to let you go, a bright light in 2011 cinema.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/144292-sydney-film-festival-2011-a-separation-takes-the-competition-prize/