Quiet Power

"A Separation" is remarkable, winning in 2012 the Triple-Prize at the Berlin Film Festival and an Oscar for best foreign film. It is an intensely honest, character-driven examination of a family caught up in circumstances that slip incrementally out of control.

Foreign films can be compelling and rich in so many ways. Not only do they offer a window into another culture — in this case it's Iran — but they can reveal an elemental truth: While every country is bound by a patina of norms and traditions, there exists universalities that connect us in very fundamental ways. Much is dissimilar — dress, language, institutions — yet so much is familiar, a common humanity that cannot be obscured.

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, "A Separation" has at its center a well-educated, middle-class family living in Tehran, Iran. The mother, Simin (Leila Hatami), is a doctor; the father, Nader (Peyman Moadi), a banker; their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), 14, a student at a nearby school.

The family finds itself at a crossroads moment. Simin wants to leave Iran and raise their daughter abroad. Nader, concerned for his 80-year-old father, afflicted with Alzheimer's, refuses. Simin is committed to her plan. Nader is intractable, insisting he cannot leave his father. The outcome is that Simiin leaves her husband, and Termeh and goes to live with her parents.

Her decision sets in motion a series of events, ripe with unintended consequences, revealing how quickly large and small chasms can be opened, some so profound that only dysfunction and misunderstanding seem viable.

What makes the film so immensely powerful is how nicely balanced it is, using point of view. An escalating situation develops that no one could have anticipated, with a surprising forensic quality to it, as layer upon layer is added to the narrative. There is no clearly defined antagonist or protagonist; rather, all is perspective and complexity, compounded by the cultural norms of decorum and restraint that are so deeply embedded in Iranian society. There also are issues of religion, social class, education and a Byzantine bureaucracy, all contributing to the deepening conundrum that is crafted in scene after scene.

To disclose in any detail the plot of the film would be to deprive the filmgoer the opportunity to be freshly submerged in a perplexing and engaging experience. The fact that it was made in Iran is remarkable, a country that can seem harsh and enigmatic and defined by its theocracy. But "A Separation" is subtle, balanced, beautifully told, and has, improbably, found an international audience.

Films such as this are the antidote to action, CGI-driven cinema that so often passes for entertainment. It is so well-acted, so quietly powerful that, upon reflection, when considered in the aggregate, it astonishes.

In 1912, Edgar Rice Burrows, best known for his tales of Tarzan, wrote "A Princess of Mars," a tale of high adventure, now adapted to the screen by Disney as "John Carter."

Though it appears to be a B-movie, it isn't, costing Disney some $250 million to make. It shows. The production is extraordinary, rich in detail, steeped in CGI and stop-motion, demonstrating a remarkable sense of setting and imagination. This is not your grandfather's second-tier adventure film.

If the genre appeals, then you will enjoy "John Carter," a gumbo of sci-fi, sword and sandal ala ancient Rome, with an indigenous population known as Tharks who must be related to the locals in Avatar (only they have four arms instead of two).

Suspend your disbelief and journey with John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), denizen of the 19th century, to Mars, also known as Barsoom. How that happens, well, you'll see.

Having just survived America's Civil War, Carter abruptly finds himself in the middle of a similar war on Mars, between two city states, Helium and Zodanga, also populated by human-like, toga-wearing warriors. The spectacular warrior-princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), is about to marry a man she despises. Her father insists that it is the only way to bring peace to Barsoom. Enter Carter.

"John Carter" is a love story superimposed on some spectacular battles, wild escapes, great special effects and perpetual swashbuckling, all reminiscent of those antecedent tales featuring Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Indiana Jones. It's entertaining and a surprise.

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