Coriolanus and Nader & Simin

As the Berlin Film Festival creeps film-by-film to its end this coming Sunday the amount of mediocre fare in the main competition section is baffling. However, solace was at hand with Ralph Fiennes’ worthy “Coriolanus,” and Asghar Farhadi masterful “Nader and Simin: A Separation,” which arrived on days five and six, respectively.

I’ll start with the less impressive of the two.

A decade after incarnating Coriolanus on the London stage, Ralph Fiennes has turned to Shakespeare’s late (and seldom-performed) tragedy about a Roman general out for bloody retribution for his directorial debut. Fiennes’ has set the tale in the present day, and his film opens with stunning combat scenes that make this Shakespeare flick closer to “The Hurt Locker” than to a Masterpiece Theater production.

The actor also appears in the title role and has assembled a mostly solid ensemble cast around him. Standouts include Brian Cox as the sympathetic senator Menenius and James Nesbitt as the scheming Sicinius. But it is Vanessa Redgrave as the wronged general’s heroic mother Volumna who takes your breath away. As for Fiennes’ himself, he is mostly in his element and controlled, except for a few absurd outbursts that provide some unintended comic relief. The weak link in the cast is Gerard Butler as Coriolanus’ nemesis Tullus Aufidius. At the press conference following the screening, answering questions about playing a weightier and more intellectually-demanding role than Leonidas in “300,” Butler boasted that he made his professional stage debut in a production of Coriolanus. The actor didn’t provide details and whatever experience Butler has with Shakespeare certainly doesn’t shine through in this film. His Aufidius had the emotional range of a stick of dynamite—fuse and bang!

The film was shot in Belgrade, whose bombed-out streets, open marketplaces and imperial squares give the film both a timeless and contemporary feel. Fiennes proves remarkably sure-footed behind the camera. The film flows well despite the jerky camerawork and bristles with tension. The climactic show-down between Coliolanus and Volumna is gripping and masterfully staged.

The screenplay by John Logan (who also wrote “Gladiator,”) doesn’t tamper with Shakespeare’s language and does a solid job of distilling the Bard’s second-longest play into a manageable two hours. A lot of information is reported via news programs which humorously air on a TV channel called Fidelis which do a pithy (if not terribly comprehensive) job of providing background.

All in all, “Coriolanus” is an impressive debut and a fine Shakespeare adaptation. But while it would be nice to see Redgrave take home a Silver Bear for her performance, the film really can’t hope for much more.

“Nader and Simin: A Separation”(pictured) by Asghar Farhadi currently stands the best chance to win top prize. Not only is it a superb film with nary a wasted shot. The symbolism of awarding this film will certainly not be lost on the jury who are keeping an empty seat for the incarcerated Iranian director Jafar Panahi. Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi give three-dimensional, wholly believable performances as the two sides of an acrimonious couple going through a sloppy divorce.

The separation itself is somewhat of a MacGuffin and does little more than set all the pieces in motion. The most we hear about marital disputes is in the tense opening scene, a single static shot that shows the spouses pleading their cases, from the perspective of the marriage clerk’s desk. Simin explains that she wants to take their eleven-year-old daughter to study and live abroad. Nader insists on staying behind to tend to his Alzheimer-afflicted father.

When Simin moves out and goes to live with her mother, waiting for the divorce to be finalized, Nader hires a poor, pregnant woman, Razieh, to care for his father. The work––which included washing the incontinent old man––proves too much for the devout woman and one afternoon Razieh leaves the ailing father alone in the house, tied to his bed. When the abuse it discovered, Nader throws the woman out of his house violently. The next day Razieh miscarries and blames Nader, sparking an emotional and violent feud involving the woman’s unemployed husband that sends Nader’s life shattering down on him.

One of the film’s best qualities is that it treats heavy subjects in a down-to-earth and thoroughly unlabored fashion. No detail of the intricate plot seems forced or contrived. We are free to contemplate the film’s beauty and humanistic mien while weighing the ethical and religious issues raised by a serious work of art that never seems preachy.

For regular updates, stills and soundbites visit the Berlinale site.

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