Art Cinema: The Depletion of the Local (A Separation and Elena)
Two Films in Competition at IFFI 2011
An art film is the result of filmmaking as a serious, independent undertaking aimed at a niche rather than mass market. Film scholars typically define ‘art films’ through those formal qualities that mark them as different from mainstream Hollywood films, which includes, among other things, a narrative dwelling upon the real problems of everyday life, an emphasis on the authorial expressivity of the director rather than generic convention and a focus on the subjectivity of the characters rather than on plot. If the art film finds it difficult to reach wide audiences, the place where it thrives is the international film festival in which films that rarely get public releases are shown to a discerning public. But the ‘discerning public’ at international film festivals may have actually helped create a new kind of cinema poorer in local significance, as this brief essay tries to show by comparing two films in competition at IFFI 2011 – Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation and Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Elena.
Both Farhadi and Zvyagintsev have made their mark in the international arena. A Separation won the Golden Bear at Berlin in 2011 while Zyvagintsev’s debut film The Return (2003) won the Golden Lion at Venice. Elena itself received the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011. But of the two films it is A Separation which was universally hailed at IFFI 2011, the responses to Zvyagintsev’s Elena being much more mixed.
A Separation begins with Nader and Simin trying to get a divorce. There is no animosity between them but Simin wants to leave the country to get her daughter better opportunities while Nader refuses to leave because he needs to look after his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Simin wants a divorce only because Nader is adamant about staying on and she cannot leave while being married to him. Their appearance in the family court is inconclusive because the judge decides that the disagreement is too trivial for a divorce. Simin now arranges for a servant woman to come every day and look after Nader’s father. The woman Rajieh is poor and takes up the job although she does this without consulting her husband Houjat, as she is required to because her work involves cleaning a man. She tries to get Houjat to work instead – without revealing that she worked there first – but Houjat’s creditors pounce on him and contrive to get him put into jail. Rajieh therefore returns and takes up the job of tending to Nader’s father once again.
Things go well initially but Rajieh has problems dealing with the old man who soils himself constantly. She also finds him missing when the door is open and locates him in the street hundreds of yards away. One day, when Nader and his daughter return home, they find the door locked and Rajieh absent. Nader’s father has been tied to the bed but he has slipped out, fallen and injured himself. Rajieh returns a short while later and apologizes. She had to leave on some urgent work, she says without revealing what it was. But Nader still sacks her and also accuses her of stealing money although we in the audience have seen that the money was taken by Simin to pay some movers the previous day. When Rajieh demands money for her exertions, Nader pushes her out roughly. The next morning, Nader finds that Rajieh and her husband have brought a case of assault and murder against him. She was apparently pregnant and lost her child when he pushed her and she ‘fell down the stairs’. The unborn child was over four months old and that makes it murder.
A Separation works by enlisting our sympathy for everyone in it. Simin and Rajieh come closer when Simin understands the poor woman’s difficulties. Nader is a good man but he lies when he tells the court that he didn’t know about her pregnancy and he is caught out. Rajieh’s husband has fewer scruples than she has and wants to use the opportunity to get some money. But he is also in serious trouble and the director gets some sympathy for him as well. But the crux of the matter is that Rajieh lied when she blamed Nader for the loss of her child. She was hit by a vehicle when she was retrieving Nader’s father from the street the previous afternoon and that actually caused the miscarriage. In any case, Nader agrees to pay blood money for the dead child but when he insists that Rajieh swear on the Quran that he was responsible for the child’s death, she is unable to do so. Simin’s daughter knows that her mother will never go abroad on her own and the film ends on an open note with the daughter having to make up her mind in court on which parent she will go with.
A Separation is brilliantly made; it has the authenticity of real life and no one in it even seems to be acting. But there are some aspects to the film that cast doubt on its value as a serious work of art. While the film includes a large amount of detail – how a certain part of the populace lives and even on some legal/ social issues in Iran – one does not get a sense of how Iran’s society is constituted – its social structure, the exercise of power etc. The portrayal of the court (as in Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up – 1990) virtually establishes the Iranian state as the most reasonable of arbiters. If Rajieh and Nader belong to different classes, the classes themselves are not in conflict although individuals belonging to them may squabble. Rajieh being unable to swear on the Quran about the cause of her child’s death is also problematic, not least because it furnishes the film with a moral resolution. When we accept it in the film, shouldn’t we also wonder if we would have accepted a similar resolution in a Western film in which a lie is exposed because someone cannot swear on the Bible?
It is common knowledge that there is large scale repression in Iran and while censorship may be partly blamed for this soft portrayal of Iranian society, the film communicates no sense of disquiet with society/ politics – except having a protagonist who wishes to emigrate. China has a repressive society as well but with all the censorship in that country, a director like Zhang Ke Jia (Still Life, 2006) can still give us profoundly disquieting insights into the social processes under way in China. Iranian cinema – of the kind celebrated at film festivals – has consistently neglected to give us incisive portraits of life at home and when directors like Abbas Kiarostami suggest tyranny (Where is my Friend’s Home, 1987) or class divisions (Through the Olive Trees, 1994) they also provide comforting resolutions that effectively negate these suggestions. ‘Censorship is the origin of metaphor,’ wrote Jorge Luis Borges but A Separation does not even use metaphor in the service of social truths about Iran. It seems to have its eyes focused entirely on the international arena and the approval of audiences that decline to relate the film’s portrayal of Iranian society to whatever they know about politics and society in Iran.
Where A Separation has an intricate story filled with superficial detail about life in Iran, Zvyagintsev’s Elena is straight and flat – not because it lacks local
detail but because it assumes that audiences will recognize what it is dealing with, without them being deliberately informed. Where A Separation abounds in elements which are intended to enlighten international audiences but could be commonplace to most Iranians, Elena seems, largely, to be addressing an audience inside Russia.
In Elena, the eponymous woman protagonist is married to Vladimir, an older and much richer person. International reviews of the film describe the constitution of the couple as suggesting a ‘division between the rich and the poor’ and Vladimir as being ‘cold’ but there is more to them than merely that. It is evident from their appearances and the way they communicate and/or gesture that Vladimir belongs to a much more sophisticated bourgeois class, members of which may have come into their own after the Soviet period, while his wife Elena is apparently of the working – perhaps former peasant – class. We learn that Elena was a nurse and met Vladimir when he was hospitalized; if she is ‘wife’ to him now, she is also servant and nurse and attends to his sexual demands. If anything, the two relate to each other as a landowner and a complaisant serf woman might once have although the conditions of present-day Russia make them a ‘married couple’.
Vladimir has been fair to Elena but she has not been made to forget their social differences. Vladimir has a daughter Katerina by his earlier marriage from whom he is virtually estranged while Elena has a son named Sergei from her earlier one. Katerina belongs to the partying class while Sergei is unemployed and lives in a tiny apartment in a working-class area with his wife and two children. Elena has been helping out Sergei from her own (and Vladimir’s) money and Sergei apparently believes that more help will be forthcoming since ‘Elena is rich’. Sergei’s older son is a member of a street gang but he is due to serve in the military. Sergei expects that Vladimir’s money will buy him out of military service – and into the university – and Vladimir agrees to consider helping him although Sergei does not deserve sympathy. This, again, seems a continuation of pre-revolutionary Russian practices because a rich man drafted into the army could buy the services of a poor man to take his place. In Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead, a landowner pays a peasant a large sum to take his son’s place in the army and the peasant spends the money on drink, squanders it in a week’s time and then goes off to fight an enemy he knows nothing about.
Vladimir lives well and one morning he sets of to his gymnasium to exercise and swim – and also look at the young women there. But as fate will have it he has a heart attack and is hospitalized. Elena visits him and also tries to get Katarina to visit her father so he will feel better. Katarina’s response is that her father must be having a good time in hospital fondling the nurses attending to him. In any case, Katarina comes visiting and although she insults him, her cynicism actually makes him feel better; Vladimir recognizes his own blood in her.
When Vladimir is discharged he tells Elena that he has come to a decision. He will make a will leaving everything he has to Katarina and Elena will only get an annuity. Elena is stunned by the news but she reminds him of her son’s family. Will he at least agree to pay to get Sergei’s son out of the military? Now, however, Vladimir has decided that Sergei should take responsibility for himself. Even Elena’s plea regarding whether Vladimir would have allowed his own son to similarly go into the military is of no avail. Elena can think of nothing else to do and, that night, she administers an overdose of Viagra to him and he is found dead the next morning. Vladimir has not made a will and everything he owns will be divided equally between his widow and daughter. Katarina suspects something but she is too aristocratic to contest it. When the film ends, Sergei and his family are planning to move in with Elena although she is uncertain how Katarina will react to the proposal. Sergei is entertaining himself by spitting over the balcony in Elena’s palatial apartment and contemplating making structural changes in the house so that they can all be more comfortable.
The general sense to be obtained in A Separation was of a society knit together by universal faith, even if God hands out different dispensations to different members of the Faithful. The film apparently portrayed a simple society united by a common set of beliefs with no underlying tensions between any of the groups or classes constituting it. But even apart from the known problems facing Iran today, the issue here is whether there is not something dishonorable in presenting a society in terms as uncomplicated as those informing A Separation.
The differences between A Separation and Elena cannot be made clearer than through an understanding of the single factor which apparently brings them together – their open-endedness. From my description of the film it should be evident that Nader and Simin’s divorce is not the central issue in A Separation. My sense is that it is made the central issue to distract us from the fact that the conflict between Nader and Rajieh is irresolvable – except in a trite way. If this conflict had been admitted as the central one, the film could have hardly concluded in the open way in which it does because it would have ended with Rajieh being unable to swear on the Quran – and therefore affirming the moral authority of the theocratic state. By subordinating the more important issue to the less important one, the film is playing up to film festival audiences/ juries, which demand ‘ambiguity’ as a primary requisite of art.
The open-endedness of Elena, in contrast, may appear less satisfactory but that is only because the social conflict portrayed in the film is itself irresolvable. What the film and its resolution suggest is that Communism was unable to morally transform Russian society – as it thought it had – and left it without belief. Elena can be broadly described as film noir but where the tidy resolutions of film noir point to a stable moral order, Elena suggests a society in a state of moral collapse. That it admits to such a critical state of affairs is evidence of its artistic honesty and complexity.
The two films discussed here point to two different kinds of cinema – a local cinema which has universal significance because it begins by engaging seriously with local issues (Elena) and an international cinema which tries to be universal by denying these issues and assuming the garb of ethnic humanism (A Separation). The fact that it is the latter kind of cinema which is more widely appreciated points to international audiences becoming increasingly indifferent to the political/ social contexts in which cinema is produced. Can international audiences, one wonders, be so innocent as to demand that a film should stand on its own, that it need not be informed by a profound understanding of the issues of its own society? Can a film address ‘human issues’ without first admitting that these issues are inextricably tied up to ongoing social/ political realities? This was not a demand that was once made of great films but it seems to be increasingly made of serious cinema today.