A Separation: a Cinematic Tale of Truth and Lies
This past weekend I saw A Separation, an Iranian movie with more awards to its credit than a dictator’s military jacket. It deserves every one of them.
You’ll never find better screenwriting. Rolling Stone rightly calls it “a landmark film.” Filmcritic calls it a brilliant political metaphor. Roger Ebert praises it as a critique of religion. The Irish Times calls it “a thoughtful film that also works as a crackling melodrama.”
It is all those, and something else. It’s a poster child for the corrosive influence of lying and the power of truth-telling.
Relationships in Disarray
I’ve often quoted (and will again here) Phil McGee’s brilliant insight that “all business problems flow from a tendency to blame, and an inability to confront.”
In A Separation, we see a couple struggling with their relationship. The wife wants to leave Iran; the husband refuses to leave his ailing father. The wife goes to stay with her parents. Their daughter is caught in between.
A woman, hired as a caregiver to the ailing father, brings her volatile husband into the mix. A small set of events trigger a progressive breakdown of relationships among these five key characters.
It is the breakdown that is portrayed so brilliantly. All five are shown as partly sympathetic, and the incidents are so trivial that it doesn’t feel like a deus ex machina. And so the plot feels inevitable – the situation falls into disarray like water forming a funnel down the sink. How could it be otherwise?
The Truth Shall Set You Free
Until, that is, you realize that every one of these people is fundamentally, deeply, living a lie. One’s lie is about honor; another’s about God; a third about loyalty to family. All the lies seem trivial, and understandable. But they all collide; irresistible forces meeting immovable objects.
And I realized, walking out of the theater, that every single one of those characters held the power within them to change everything – simply by being willing to tell the truth. And the power they held was not just to change themselves, but to change everyone else as well – the entire situation.
A Tendency to Blame, and an Inability to Confront
Back to McGee’s thesis. Dysfunction in groups is rarely about one stubborn person gumming up the works. That is the blame game. The one bad apple spoiling the barrel.
More often, it’s a group conspiracy that’s at fault; the entire organization opting to point fingers, rather than engaging in confronting the true issue at hand. And as the movie reminded me, a conspiracy doesn’t need to be undone by everyone – a single defector can do the job.
All it takes is one person to Speak the Truth, to point out the emperor’s new non-clothes. If that can be done, everyone else immediately recognizes that truth has been spoken. Then, whether from shame or from gratitude at someone else having taken the first step, the healing can begin.
Is this too abstract? What about you? What tangled webs are you a part of? What truth might be spoken by others caught up in the web that would set everyone free?
What truth might be spoken by you?