Honor is everything in the Iran of Asghar Farhadi's Nader and Simon, a Separation and the Albania of Joshua Marston's The Forgiveness of Blood. Each character defends his or her allotment, determined primarily by gender and class, and while there are plenty of ways to lose it, opportunities to regain it are few and far between. Both stories end, then, by turning a hopeful eye on the young.
Narrative drive takes precedence over craft in both of these films of modest means, so it's odd that, though the stakes are higher in The Forgiveness of Blood — death literally lurks just outside the front door — Nader and Simin is the more consistently engaging of the two. Some have grumbled that the Berlinale jury went overboard when it awarded the Golden and two Silver Bears to Farhadi's film this past weekend, but that question aside, the ratio of its loot to the one Silver Bear for the Best Script for Forgiveness seems about right to me.
Deborah Young sets up Nader and Simin in the Hollywood Reporter: "Nader (Peyman Moaadi, seen in About Elly) is a decent man but a stubborn one, and he neglects his wife [Leila Hatami]. Too proud to ask her to stay with him, he lets her move back to her mother's place while he and Termeh [Sarina Farhadi] are left to look after his aged father with Alzheimer's disease. He hastily hires a poor woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) as a daytime caretaker, who signs on without telling him she's pregnant (or does she?). A few days later he fires her and shoves her out the door; she falls on the stairs (perhaps) and has a miscarriage. The rest of the film is a crescendo of tension as Razieh's hot-headed, debt-ridden husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) takes Nader to court for manslaughter."
"And just like that, we find ourselves in the world of 12 Angry Men and Rashomon — those two iconic exercises in the subjective nature of what we call 'truth.'" With his blog now set up at the newly redesigned site for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Scott Foundas notes that we also find ourselves "in the domain of Jean Renoir and his immortal dictum that 'The real hell of life is everyone has his reasons.' For two hours, Nader and Simin keeps shifting the film's moral center, first aligning our sympathies with one character, then another, then ever so nimbly shifting the ground under our feet until we have nowhere left to turn, except to young Termeh, blessed with the unblemished moral compass of youth. And like Renoir, too, Farhadi is remarkably attune to the way social status influences behavior — the blind arrogance of the bourgeoisie, the self-righteousness of the working class."
For Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek, "if Farhadi's movie isn't an overt statement about the political, social and religious climate in Iran, it nonetheless seethes with quiet anger and frustration. Like his compatriot Jafar Panahi, Farhadi is attuned to the plight of women in Iran, the way their needs and desires are subjugated to those of their husbands. But he shows how this system fails men, too: Nader becomes charged with a crime that, it seems, he didn't knowingly commit — in any event, his 'knowing' is difficult to prove. And even though his wife has been instructed to stay with him, it's impossible to legislate a human being's love. As far as his marriage goes, the law may rule in Nader's favor, but it can't bring him happiness, and his misery — even as it's veiled by his more obvious machismo — is clear every minute."
Commenting on the film's Bears at indieWIRE, Shane Danielsen finds that critics in Berlin "kept praising the film less for what it did, than for what it represented. Like his previous film, About Elly (which won Best Director here in 2008), it was hailed for the fact that it showed us something hitherto under-depicted onscreen: urban, middle-class Iranians, living in horribly- but extravagantly-decorated apartments in Tehran, rather than blind, balloon-carrying children in the desert. That Iran has an educated middle-class would seem, on the face of it, to be news only to the likes of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck; nevertheless, the film was acclaimed for bringing us this 'startling new perspective' on life in the Middle East. Anything which challenges the monolithic image of a culture is obviously of interest. But acknowledging its novelty isn't the same thing as engaging with the actual work. And I couldn't entirely shake the feeling that, had it been from anywhere else, its virtues might have been slightly less noteworthy, and its victory less inevitable."
Still, for In Contention's Guy Lodge, this is "commendably tricky adult storytelling, slowed only by one-note strains to the parties' arguing in the middle section; much Iranian cinema that receives international distribution could be accused of exoticizing the country to some extent, but many western viewers will be surprised just how relatable this smart, thistly film is."
For Robert Koehler, writing at filmjourney.org, "Farhadi's film is a case of a finely honed screenplay (with a few devices that begin to bother you in the days after you see the film) but perfectly bland as cinema, with a brilliant cast and filmmaking that's no better than the standard commercial Iranian movie."
"This stunning drama establishes Farhadi as a major figure," argues Nick James in the Observer. In Screen, Lee Marshall agrees that the film "lifts the director to the front rank of contemporary world directors, and should be compulsive viewing for anyone wondering what has happened to Iranian cinema."
Update, 2/25: For Andrew Grant, Farhadi "raises the philosophical and political question as to how the secular and religious worlds can successfully co-exist in Iranian society, and does so in a way that can only prompt discourse."
The Hollywood Reporter's Scott Roxborough asks Marston, "How did you find this story — about a teenage boy caught in the world of Albanian blood feuds?" And Martson's "short answer is I read it in a newspaper. About every six months or so, a major English-language newspaper runs a story about Albania and they are usually about the blood feuds. But what was fascinating for me wasn't the feud per se — you have blood feuds all over the world — but the co-existence of something so incredibly antiquated in a modern setting. These kids sitting at home with their video games, Internet, cell phones and satellite TV, but they can't go outside because they'll be killed by the dictates of a 15th-century legal code, the so-called Kanun, which dictates eye-for-an-eye justice."
This "set of unwritten rules [is] used to perpetuate a basic, patriarchal justice system whereby 'the slightest insult' offending someone's male pride can legitimately give rise to bloody vendettas and which can too be cobbled together as one pleases," writes Bénédicte Prot at Cineuropa. "When the father and uncle of Nik (17 [Tristan Halilaj]) and his sister Rudina (15 [Sindi Laçej]) are accused of stabbing the neighbor, after the latter refuses to leave them right of way, opprobrium befalls the entire family. After the father goes into hiding, the neighbour's family refuses to grant the boys in the family (women and girls don’t count) 'besa,' that is permission to leave their house without being killed. The system's stubborn paralysis is literally re-enacted by the situation in which the guilty men’s family find themselves: they remain between their four walls, waiting for a resolution that is clearly unattainable."
For THR's Ray Bennett, The Forgiveness of Blood tells "a familiar tale of territorial rights and family honor but it is told well and the film features appealingly natural performances by non-professionals." The stand-out word for me here is "familiar." This juxtaposition of 21st-century gadgetry with ancient tradition that Marston mentions is a somewhat fresh and newsy angle of approach, but at root, what we have here are two warring clans and a young upstart who aims to break the cycle of vengeance — or at the very least, escape it. Within the narrative, the twists are serviceably twisty enough, but the story itself offers little that's new other than a primer on the rules and regulations of Albanian blood feuds.
Screen's Mike Goodridge sees it differently: "Marston knows how to hook the audience by drawing his characters and their milieu with a strong sense of authenticity. His scene-setting is exactly precise enough to give us a sense of who they are and why we should care about them before the drama kicks in… As we know from Maria Full of Grace, the director is skilled at building tension and in this film, there is a menace lurking in each scene, a threat that Nik will be felled by a bullet at any moment."
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