Two of the big winners at this year's Academy Awards ceremony were Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, which can be reviewed together only as a study in contrasts. Hugo calls to mind the aphorism by Michael Powell, one of Scorsese's artistic gods, that there is no realism in films, only surrealism. Scorsese's film glories in that surrealism, using every cinematic trick in the book (including 3D) to celebrate the pioneers of what is commonly known as "movie magic." Farhadi begs to differ with Scorsese and Powell. A Separation portrays a small group of people mired in the bleakest minutiae of their time and place—modern-day Iran—where absolute, bald reality is impossible to escape.
From its opening shot—a magnificent sweep of a Paris train station in the early 1930s, the crane-lifted camera barreling down the tracks to take in the passengers, the shopkeepers, the beautiful Art Deco architecture, ending with a little boy's face peering out of a hole in a station clock—Hugo creates a mood of enchantment that Scorsese maintains throughout the film. It is difficult to think of any other film—even E.T.—that sustains such an exquisite mood of childlike wonder and discovery. John Logan's screenplay—adapted from The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a children's book by Brian Selznick—stretches a bit thin toward the end. But Scorsese—aided by his usual crew including cinematographer Robert Richardson, editor Thelma Schoonmaker (Powell's widow) and designer Dante Ferretti—manages to keep the magic going, even when the story repeats itself.
Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a Parisian boy orphaned when his father (Jude Law) perishes in a museum fire. Taken in by his drunken Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone)-- who teaches him how to wind the station's clocks, then disappears—Hugo is totally alone. He keeps the clocks running, steals food to stay alive, and spends most of his time ducking the officious station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who has a special animus against orphans.
Hugo's only possession is a mysterious automaton his father found in the museum. Hugo, a nascent mechanical genius, believes that if he gets the automaton running, he will reclaim something of his father. To repair the contraption, he swipes gears and parts wherever he can find them, until the day he runs afoul of Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), curmudgeonly proprietor of the station toy shop. Papa Georges tells Hugo that he must work off his debt in the shop, or else be turned over to the station inspector.
Hugo's servitude to Papa Georges turns out to be not all bad, because it introduces him to Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), Papa Georges' goddaughter and ward. Hugo and Isabelle stroll around Paris together, getting into scrapes; at one point they sneak into a movie theater to see Harold Lloyd's Safety Last, a film that has echoes later in the plot. Hugo shows Isabelle his automaton, and she too becomes engrossed in learning its secret—a secret that eventually leads back to Papa Georges.
I'm uncertain how much more I can say about the plot of Hugo without giving away too much. The film has a central revelation that it's better not to know; on the other hand, Hugo was released months ago and is now on DVD, with myriad reviews published between now and then, so few people interested in Hugo can be totally ignorant of its plot secret.
In any case, it's impossible to discuss Hugo without at least mentioning the life and work of Georges Melies. Between 1896 and 1913, magician-turned-filmmaker Melies directed more than 500 short films that he originally intended as an extension of his magic act. With such films as A Trip to the Moon, The Impossible Voyage, The Man with the Rubber Head and Le Manoir du Diable, Melies established himself as the first great special-effects artist in cinematic history. A jammed camera introduced Melies to the possibilities of the stop trick—in which an object in one frame of film can be seen to magically disappear in the next. Melies was also a pioneer in multiple exposures, time-lapse photography and even color film (hand-colored, to be precise).
Melies' films seem primitive to us now, but they exude the charm of a bygone era, and even more they radiate the joy of an imaginative artist discovering the possibilities of a new medium. It is precisely this joy of discovery that Scorsese conveys in Hugo. This is just about the only 3D film I can think of in which the technology actually enhances the story; a spectacular train-wreck sequence at the film's midpoint is the most obvious example, but 3D pervades the film, creating an enticing, magical mood throughout.
As usual in a Scorsese film, the cast is impeccable. Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz are wonderfully natural, believable child actors who command our sympathy throughout. (It doesn't hurt Butterfield that he has the bluest eyes of any actor since Paul Newman.) Ben Kingsley, who has perhaps the widest range of any actor now working (Gandhi and Sexy Beast, anyone?), reveals the successive layers of Papa Georges' personality with the flair of—well, a magician. Cohen, playing the film's broadest comic character, is splendid as a rule-bound fussbudget who wants to be a nice guy but doesn't quite know how to go about it. His attempts to give a pleasant smile to the station's flower seller (Emily Mortimer) have to be seen to be believed.
Other performers in Hugo—all excellent—include Helen McCrory as Papa Georges' devoted wife, Michael Stuhlbarg as a film historian, and Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour as would-be lovers kept apart by an importunate dachshund. All of them add to the enchanting ambience Scorsese creates, making Hugo a treat for anyone who loves movies.
Considering A Separation after Hugo is to come crashing down to earth. That isn't a commentary on the quality of A Separation, which must be considered one of the great films of the past decade. It is, rather, a commentary on how reality can twist and crush human souls, a state that A Separation portrays masterfully.
A Separation begins with Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) petitioning for a divorce before a Tehran administrative law judge. A stalemate has brought Simin and Nader to the court. Simin has finally, after years of waiting, obtained an exit visa for the family, and is anxious to leave Iran to obtain a better, freer life. Nader, however, refuses to leave his elderly father, who has Alzheimer's. Complicating the issue is the couple's daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter), who has chosen to live with Nader, knowing Simin would never leave Iran without her.
The judge grants a trial separation, meaning that Simin is no longer available to help care for Nader's father. Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), an impoverished housewife desperate for any work she can get, to look after Nader's father during the day. However, it soon becomes painfully obvious that Razieh—a pious woman already distracted by the small daughter she must bring with her to Nader's apartment—is in way over her head. At one point she even calls her imam to ask if it is acceptable for her to change the old man's diapers.
Razieh asks Nader if her husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini), an unemployed cobbler, can take her place caring for the old man. Nader agrees, but before the switch can be put into place, an altercation occurs between Nader and Razieh that blows the lid off the entire situation. To discuss their disagreement would be to reveal too much of the plot. It is enough to say that it becomes a metaphor for a country crumbling under the weight of a social system so antiquated that debtors' prison remains a threat. Nader and Hojjat lunge at each other in court and out of it, each caring more about his personal honor than the welfare of his wife and daughter. Meanwhile, the fearful Razieh is keeping a few secrets of her own.
Filming entirely in closeups and mid-length shots in the style of the Dardenne brothers, Farhadi creates a claustrophobic view of modern Iran. The protagonists are trapped by economic, religious and political circumstances that warp their perceptions and turn them into enemies. Farhadi doesn't throw his thesis in our faces, which makes it all the more powerful. It is enough to see the difference between Simin's elegant head scarves and Razieh's shabby burqa. The actors, who won a Silver Bear for ensemble work at the Berlin Film Festival, are so real that viewers feel ashamed at eavesdropping on their pain.
A Separation ends with Farhadi's own quietly devastating version of a cliffhanger. However the final question is answered, it bodes no happiness for any of the characters, and also none for the country in which they live.