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Politics at the Movies

Two movies open in Sacramento this week that offer glimpses into very different cultures and places, as two couples find themselves in desperate circumstances. 

In one, a Bosnian woman and a Serbian meet on the eve of the Bosnian war.  In the other, an Iranian husband and wife struggle to come to terms with conflicting opportunities and duties.

“In the Land of Blood and Honey” tells the story of Alja and Danijel who first meet in a night club and then again later in a camp, commanded by Danijel, where Bosnian women are taken and used by Serbian soldiers.  The basic premise is built around this relationship, one that might have been quite ordinary in a time of peace but which is anything but ordinary in a war defined by ethnicities and atrocities.

Despite the compelling concept, the film is garnering most of its attention for having been written, directed, and co-produced by Angelina Jolie, a global star who grew up around the film industry but who has never before taken the helm of a narrative feature of her own.  What’s interesting is that despite a vast amount of related experience, the project still has some of the typical traits of a first film.  While Jolie clearly has the ability to maintain a coherent, linear, narrative structure, she seems less able to trim the edges of her own work and, at 127 minutes, it seems unnecessarily long.  It’s tough material and it’s not that it feels overtly slow, it’s just that it could have delivered the same story with the same punch with less material. 

Aside from that, the majority of the movie is focused on the two leads, who are good in their respective parts.  Both have family situations that further complicate their loyalties, in addition to their positions on two sides of a bitter and gruesome war.  The odd thing is that we’re asked to ponder the relationship as it exists in these specific circumstances, which are clearly stacked against any hope of normalcy or stability. 

But it’s hard to decide if one would root for this relationship even if times were perfect – it’s almost impossible to determine who these people might have been if the world around them hadn’t blown up in their faces.  Whatever your reaction is when the movie ends, ask yourself how else you might have written it had the story been yours.

In “A Separation,” a married couple are torn apart when they’re granted a visa that would permit them to emigrate from Iran, but they have differing opinions on the benefits of raising their 11 year old daughter elsewhere, versus staying to care for the husband’s ailing father. 

It’s a film that starts in domestic near-chaos, as the family begins a day with the wife packing to leave and the husband interviewing another woman who might possibly be able to watch over his father.  From there, it slowly builds as multiple lives are affected by the core conflict.

“A Separation” is nominated for two Oscars, one in the Best Foreign language Film category and another, unusually for a foreign film, for Best Original Screenplay. 

And it’s a fascinating piece of writing as it blends family duties, religious observances, financial hardships, and the Iranian legal system into a multi-dimensional drama that, at its core, is still largely about parenting. 

For example, at one moment in the movie, the woman who finds herself somewhat reluctantly employed to care for the elderly parent, calls some kind of religious advice hotline to ask whether or not it would be a sin for her to see him in a state of undress while she cleans him after soiling himself.

It’s hard to describe much of this film without undermining the slowly escalating plot, but while the drama was initiated by the visa situation, it goes so far beyond that, that it would be easy to forget where it started.  As with “In the land of Blood and Honey,” it’s also interesting to wonder how these lives might have been different without that defining change.  Or whether the problems were simmering already and merely needed a catalyst to boil over.

Another intriguing aspect of “A Separation” is the depiction of Iranian life.  For most of us, our exposure to stories from Iran are limited to concerns about the enrichment of nuclear materials and global political conflict.  But here we see an Iran that in many ways is much like anywhere else, albeit with stricter religious overtones than in some places (although not more serious than in Bosnia). 

This is an Iran with two-car families, homes filled with books, musical instruments and appliances, working women, and a daughter whose stresses are coming from her parents’ separation, her grandfather’s health, and her ever-present schoolwork.  In many respects, it’s a film that can play well across cultures because the central themes are relatively universal, more so at least than the extreme violence of “In the Land of Blood and Honey.”  More of us have had to cope with family dysfunction than with genocide.

A third opening

In a strange contrast to these two, profound dramas, this week also sees the opening of what might be thought of as their “first world problems” comedic counterpoint. 

The conditions that are at the heart of “Wanderlust” – joblessness and the inability to pay for a “microloft” in Manhattan’s West Village –  obviously pale in comparison, but they only serve as the setup for a high-concept, fish out of water comedy.

Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston inadvertently stumble into a sixties-ish hippie commune of free love and shared everything, which tests their relationship and their perceptions of what matters in life.  It has the feel of a film that has scripted elements, especially those that drive the plot, alongside scenes that seem largely improvised. 

In my opinion, it’s the more structured scenes that work best here, and the contrast is a little jarring at times between moments that seem tight and finely tuned, and others that are allowed to ramble.  It’s not that the looser scenes aren’t funny, it’s just an odd combination of styles at times, often determined by who’s onscreen.

That said, I was pleasantly surprised overall, and the film is far funnier than the preview gave me reason to hope for.  I was expecting to groan inwardly far more than laughing outwardly, when in fact the level of laughter at the pre-screening was sufficient to compromise dialog.  Many viewers may come away wishing that it had been the frontal nudity that was compromised, rather than the dialog.  But again – first world problems.


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