Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Separation; Miss Bala (New York Film Festival)

Unable to catch "A Separation" by Asghar Farhadi at Telluride, I relished my second chance to see it, this time at the 49th New York Film Festival. I'm not sure if the film as a whole is quite as good as many have been professing it to be, as there are a few kinks that I wish were worked out. But I was definitely dazzled by the acting and the screenwriting. It took me a little while to get into, but once I was engrossed, it played superbly.

Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave Iran with her child Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), but her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) feels that his daughter should live with him. He sees his father (Ali-Agshar Shahbazi), though pretty far gone with Alzheimer's, as still worth building his life around, and thus he continues to stay rooted. However, with his wife gone, he has to find someone else to make sure his dad doesn't have problems while he's at work. He settles on Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who has a daughter named Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) and another kid on the way. We see her as faithful to the job (despite her religious qualms that she calls a hotline to address), but also a little careless, and when Nader comes home one day, he gets extremely upset and ends up forcefully throwing Razieh out of his house. She ends up in the hospital for having a miscarriage, and Nader is charged with murder, at the behest of Razieh's troubled husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), whom Nader tried to hire for his care-taking spot at one point as well.

The film examines how people, under pressure, do disagreeable things to help their loved ones. Nader is looking out for his daughter, and Razieh wants to support her husband get through his spot of trouble with creditors. It also shows the courts as black and white, stripped completely of respect for human emotion, and in incredible contrast to the fraught shouting matches at the center of the work.

It's a relentless piece of cinema. I can see what people mean when they say that it's hard to watch visually. However, that ultimately works to its advantage. The four spellbinding lead performances are among the strongest acting jobs this year, especially Bayat as Razieh. And, though I feel that the script sometimes takes easy ways out (the ending) and doesn't cover things as much as it should (Simin is left a little underdeveloped as a character), the dialogue grabs you and hits very hard. I think "The Turin Horse" should have maybe won the Golden Bear, but "A Separation" is a strong piece, overhyped but all the same worthy of attention. B+

Gerardo Naranjo's "Miss Bala" at certain points captured my attention entirely. At others it nearly put me to sleep (though it is worth nothing I saw it at 9 PM after a long day). It follows Laura (Stephanie Sigman), who sells clothing but who really wants to be Miss Baja California. Due a bizarre takeover of a nightclub, she loses her friend and also, since she's late to her rehearsal the next day, her chances in the competition. But, when she's tapped by a gang to do some risky jobs, she could get both back.

The film's much-praised bravura cinematography, which involves a lot of ostentatious long takes, feels more thought out than the story. Laura could save herself easily, but instead makes a lot of tiresomely silly decisions (albeit for friends and family) so that the film continues. The film is mostly about her being manipulated, and I was less than enthralled. But certain moments do indeed pack a punch (when Laura is caught in the middle of firefights) or sicken (the first driving sequence, when light is shed upon it). "Miss Bala" isn't all for naught, but I can't help wishing that I was a little more satisfied. C+


Steph said...

I have been anxious to see A Separation, though I don't know whether it will make it to the U.S. for us mainstream viewers. I am intrigued by what you said about the cinematography being more thought out than the story (and a bit ostentatious at times). I hope I'll eventually be able to find out whether I agree. :-)

Nick Duval said...

Just to be clear, I was actually talking about MISS BALA when I referred to the ostentatious cinematography. A SEPARATION has a very well thought out story and not quite as much focus placed on the cinematography than MISS BALA does. Sorry that wasn't clear in the reviews.