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Run Your Hero Off a Cliff

Posted by Gil Bettman on Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Both the Dardenne brothers, and my other hero filmmaker of the moment, Ashgar Farhadi, front load the stakes in their love stories. They fully understand that the more good love at stake, the more precarious the balance between it all being lost or gained, the greater the narrative drive and suspense. So they don’t wait around to put a lot of love on the line.

At the very beginning of the Dardennes’ latest film, “The Kid With a Bike” when we meet the protagonist, Cyril, he is biting, kicking and fighting his way out the grasp of the counselors in a foster care farm and hurling himself out of windows, over walls and down the road on his bike, determined to reunite himself with the father who has cast him off like an old shoe. The Dardennes immediately run their young hero off a cliff and leave him there flailing in mid-air like Wily Coyote. We see the abyss open up beneath him. We pray he won’t fall, but we know he must, and we know the landing will hurt. Nothing hurts like a parental slight, and the slight Cyril’s father seems poised to deal him would destroy any one of us. So we dread its inevitability, even as we pray that it can be averted. This all happens in the first act and launches the audience headlong into the film.

Similarly, Farhadi starts his masterpiece, “A Separation”, in medias res. When we meet the main character, Nader, his wife, Simin, is putting an emotional gun to his head by threatening to divorce him unless he leaves Iran with her. Nader insists that he must stay in Iran so he can care for his father, who is increasingly crippled by Alzheimer’s. Unmoved, Simin moves out of their apartment, leaving Nader alone to care for his ailing father and their twelve year old daughter, Termeh.

Now the gun which Simin has pointed at Nader’s head is loaded with the bullet of Termeh’s love. Clearly, Simin’s agenda is to divorce Nader, leave Iran, and convince Termeh to come with her. To do this she must first win out over Nader in a contest for their daughter’s love. To compete, Nader must keep working at the bank so he can offer his daughter as much in material comfort as his angry wife whose family is very wealthy. At the same time, he must fulfill the role of mother and father for Termeh and serve as competent 24/7 caregiver for his father. Or he might lose his daughter forever.

To meet this test, Nader, hires a woman who is a virtual stranger, Razieh, to come to his apartment to care for his father when he is out working. Razieh is desperately poor, illiterate, and an absolute fundamentalist Muslim. And under her burka she is four months pregnant – a secret she hides from Nader. The hiring of Razieh is the inciting incident of “A Separation”. It happens twenty minutes into the film and it results in a world of grief for Nader.

In this, Fahardi is working from the same play book as the Dardennes. Show us a good man who wants desperately to be a good father and a good son. And immediately align powerful forces against him which conspire to take all the good love out of his life.

Again, if you make love what’s at stake rather than life and death you can power your film forward with as much narrative drive as any film made for any price. But part of the trick is do as Fahadi and the Dardennes do, and front load your script by putting as much good love on the line as fast a possible.

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