BERLINALE DISPATCH : A Separation, an Explosion

When I first saw the Berlinale competition line up a few weeks ago, my initial – somewhat cynical – reaction was that it was a “stitch up” designed to produce a specific, desired result: namely, the awarding of the Golden Bear to Iran, as an act of solidarity with jailed* former Bear-winner Jafar Panahi (subsequently named as an in absentia juror).

Now that I have seen the Iranian film in question, Asghar Farhadi’s Nader and Simin, A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) [7/10] my conviction that this is the festival’s big winner has solidified further. But even if Panahi weren’t in jail, and even if Iranian cinema wasn’t such a hot subject in international film culture, Farhadi might well have been my idea of the winner anyway.

This is an extremely well-crafted domestic drama with much wider social implications, flawlessly acted and directed with a deceptively subdued style that draws us in and keeps us gripped for the full two hours. As the title suggests, the starting point is the estrangement – and impending divorce – of Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), a middle-class Tehran couple whose daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) is a couple of weeks short of her eleventh birthday.

But rather than taking the expected Kramer vs Kramer, histrionic scenes-from-the-end-of-a-marriage approach, writer/director Farhadi (winner of Best Director here a couple of years back for About Elly) instead largely eschews domestic confrontations and instead presents a steadily unfolding drama which brings in several seemingly peripheral characters from other strata of society. Chief among these is Razieh (Sareh Bayat) – employed by Nader to look after his Alzheimer’s-suffering father – whose pregnancy is pivotal to the events that follow.

Audiences are advised to keep their attention tightly focussed during the seemingly quite innocuous early stretches, as tiny domestic details prove absolutely crucial to the tricky moral terrain explored during the latter stages – indeed, a second viewing is as desirable here as with any Hollywood twist-reliant affair in the Sixth Sense mould.

At once specifically Iranian – issues of religious propriety and the position of women are crucial – and universal in its implications, Nader & Simin deals with weighty subjects of guilt, sin and redemption in a disarmingly straightforward and stimulating fashion, and is just the kind of rock-solid, serious, character-based drama that will find consensus favour with the Golden Bear jury. If it misses out, don’t be too stunned if Bayat nabs a “shock” Best Actress Silver Bear…

Knocking the Competition selection has been a favourite sport among attending journalists for several years here, but I have to say that the two Bear candidates I’ve seen so far have been surprisingly strong efforts. Indeed, Alexander Mindadze’s Russian / Ukrainian / German co-production Innocent Saturday (V Subbotu) [9/10] dazzled and impressed me more than any new film I’ve seen – anywhere – for over a year.

A smashingly visceral you-are-there evocation of the fateful late-April day when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded, it features hyper-kinetic hand-held camerawork from Romania’s star DP Oleg Mutu, whose credits include 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days and, more recently, Sergei Loznitsa’s post-Soviet dystopia My Joy.

Mutu and Mindadze, a 61-year-old writer/director best known as a scriptwriter before making a belated behind-the-camera debut with 2007’s Soar, follow events from the perspective of young Communist official Valery (Anton Shagin), who becomes accidentally privy to goings-on in the reactor in the dark small hours before Saturday’s dawn.

For the next 24 hours we’re on his shoulder almost constantly as he initially tries to flee along with his on-off girlfriend Vera (Svetlana Smirnova-Marcinkevic), only to miss the train by a matter of seconds. The pair then take a detour into a triple-wedding celebration (it’s Labour Day), where Valery ends up on stage playing drums with his former bandmates – in an extended, tour-de-force sequence that has the barrelling force of the most intense nightmares.

This scene of astonishing, noisy immediacy is the centrepiece and highlight of the film, which could be summed up as an art-house variant of Cloverfield, with the radiation-spewing reactor taking the place of that picture’s rampaging monster. With ‘slow cinema’ having become the default mode of high-end cinematic expression worldwide, how utterly bracing to come across such a fast, engaging, propulsive and irresistibly dynamic approach to such a deadly-serious issue – one which has fascinating allegorical and symbolic interpretations for social structures and practices in the Soviet era for those with a mind to look for them.

To say that Innocent Saturday hasn’t found wide favour here would be an understatement – in the daily ‘grid’ of critical reactions published in Screen Daily, four of the contributors have awarded it a measly one-star rating, and many people I’ve spoken to expressed their “annoyance” with Mindadze’s frenetic style and preference for oppressively tight close-ups. But after six full days here I’ve seen nothing that even approaches its brio and bravado, and I’m optimistic that the jury will grasp its merits ahead of Saturday’s closing ceremony.

Twelve months ago the Silver Bear for Best Actor was shared by the two Russian leads of How I Ended This Summer, and the gruelling physical workout experienced here by twentysomething Joseph Gordon Levitt lookalike Anton Shagin (previously best known as the pretty-boy lead in colourful musical Hipsters) might conceivably yield similar recognition. To say that he carries the picture on his shoulders would be an overstatement – at least as much credit should go to editors Dasha Danilova and Ivan Lebedev, along with Mindadze and Mutu – but he’s very much the sweat-drenched face, the beating heart and the pumping legs of this remarkable movie.

Neil Young
15th February, 2011

Berlinale 2011 index-page

* According to Variety, Panahi is neither behind bars not under house-arrest. (23/Feb/2011).