Multifocal Judgment, Intersecting Legal Proceedings, and Conservativism: A Separation and Rashomon

Law movies typically feature champions of justice—archaically dignified, like Gregory Peck’s 1962 Atticus Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird, Pakula 1962) or bitterly disillusioned, like George Clooney’s 2007 Michael Clayton (Michael Clayton, Clooney 2007), these champions are often what I have labeled “hero-lawyers” (Kamir 2009; 2012). Cinematic hero-lawyers embody natural justice combined with the law of the land. Often reluctantly, they come to the rescue, serving the law by doing “the right thing”
at any cost. Their crusades are heroic, lonely, against all odds; but inherent integrity, loyalty, superior professional legalism, and unconditional devotion to the cause secure their moral victory, personal growth, and sometimes social acknowledgment. The hero-lawyers’ terrain is the adversarial
world of the Anglo-American common law.

While hero-lawyer movies are by far the most familiar and popular law-films, this chapter explores a different, non-Anglo-American format. Its focus is A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s (2011) Iranian movie—a powerful, Oscar winning law-film that does not even feature a lawyer. While following and presenting legal proceedings—in fact, two court cases—it exhibits none of the familiar law-film motifs. It portrays no victims or villains, no reluctant, reclusive heroes, or dramatic, adversarial courtroom
battles. No one comes to the rescue; no justice is procured. It is very hard to assess whether any personal growth may be detected.

A Separation was warmly acclaimed and achieved great success including winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012, and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film[AQ1]. And yet, when I asked law students about their impression, they admitted to have found it difficult to follow or decipher. While touching them, the movie had left them puzzled and frustrated. They seemed to lack a key to access it. In response to that lack of access, in this chapter, I suggest that A Separation follows a path unexplored by most American law-films, but famously paved by Akira Kurosawa’s renowned 1950 Japanese law-film, Rashomon (Jingo 1950). I propose that reading A Separation against the backdrop of Rashomon highlights an underlying structure shared by both films, revealing their unique “multifocal judgment” and “intersecting legal proceedings.”

The second part of this chapter considers what I refer to as “multifocal judgment.” Both Separation and Rashomon offer judgmental perspectives and engage their viewers in judgment in complex ways. In both, judgment focuses on the characters of “husband” and “wife.” These characters judge each other, are both judged against another, parallel couple, and most importantly, viewers are explicitly invited to partake in passing judgment in their cases. Many law-films engage in what I have referred to in previous works as socializing audiences to judgment (Kamir 2005a, 268); Separation and Rashomon share uniquely sophisticated structures of judging marital partners. Yet both films also undercut their judgmental zeal with equal sophistication and success.

The third part of this chapter unravels the “intersecting legal proceedings” of both films. Each presents two legal or legal-like proceedings. The intersection of these proceedings reveals much of the film’s jurisprudential insight. In Rashomon, the intersection of criminal and lay proceedings (one held in a courtyard and the other at the Rashomon gate) highlights the advantages of the latter, social, informal proceeding. The lay “tribunal” of citizens reviews the evidence that was earlier examined by the
criminal court, but, in the process of making social sense, relies on additional evidence (that was not available in the official proceeding) and resorts to common sense. Besides passing judgment, this procedure leads to redemption and rectification. Separation intersects criminal and family law proceedings, demonstrating the limited capacity of the criminal proceeding to grapple with the messy realities of human psychology and relationships. Concomitantly, the clear-cut accusations formed by
the criminal law define and clarify the muted, sometimes suppressed grudges and resentments that muddle the waters of the more loosely formed family law procedure.

The fourth part of this chapter reveals the disguised (conservative) gender politics that underlie both movies, their silent acceptance of traditional honor norms (at the expense of full embrace of equal dignity), and the universalistic (rather than concrete political) nature of their social

Finally, in the conclusion, I map this chapter in terms of the three focal themes of my larger law-and-film endeavor: the analysis of law-films as social devices that induce audiences to engage in judgment; the exposé of popular jurisprudence suggested by law-films to their audiences; the illustration of law-films’ mirroring of some social functions carried out by legal systems (Kamir 2005a).

With worldwide success, both Rashomon and Separation have become part and parcel of an international culture. It is in this context that the chapter examines them as remarkably influential law-films.