A Separation begins with a static POV shot of a judge talking to an Iranian married couple who are seeking a divorce. The woman, Simin (Leila Hatami), says that her husband does not beat her, does not neglect her, and is supportive of her and her children financially. She likes him and doesn’t particularly want to leave him, but that she wants to leave the country and because he refuses to go along she sees no option but to divorce him. The husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi), says that it is unfair for her to demand that he leaves the country; firstly because he needs to take care of his Alzheimer’s-ridden father, and secondly because he sees the desire to leave behind Iran as a disgraceful cop-out. Nader is willing to let his Simin go if she wants to leave, but given that their daughter has said she wants to stay with him he does not want Simin to take her along as she emigrates. The judge says that these are not sufficient grounds for divorce and denies the petition. Simin then decides to separate from Nader and live with her family for the time being. The film that follows tells the story of what happens during this period of separation, and believe me, it only gets more interesting from there.
Almost all of that information is delivered in the first five minutes of A Separation and I hesitate to give a more detailed plot synopsis. This isn’t a movie filled with earth shattering The Usual Suspects style twists or anything like that, but a lot of the pleasure in seeing the movie comes from seeing its plot unfold in front of you without having any preconceived notions about where it’s going. Still, any serious analysis of a film is going to need to talk about a lot more than the first five minutes of a film and for that reason I will begin revealing more plot details from here on and those who want the experience of a blind viewing should read no fewer. That said, I don’t intend to reveal the film’s ending or any other details that would be considered a major spoiler in an average film.
While the film’s first scene (correctly) establishes the film as a story to two people, it takes a pretty sharp turn early on when the wife from the first scene largely disappears from the narrative for a long stretch in the first act. It’s here where the film sets up a second conflict which is every bit as complicated and ambiguous as the first. The husband hires a housekeeper named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to replace his wife as a housekeeper and caretaker for his father, and she quickly becomes overwhelmed. After Nader comes home one day to find his father neglected and lying on the floor and some money missing he fires Razieh, and when she refuses to leave he pushes her out the door. Seemingly unbeknownst to Nader, Razieh was pregnant and his shove seems to have caused her to miscarry. Her husband Houjat (Shahab Hosseini) blames Nader for the miscarriage and demands that he be charged with murder.
This case, like the divorce case, is filled with gray areas and complexities. Did Nader really not know that Razieh was pregnant? If he did does that really matter? Was his reaction fair to begin with and if so should he still be held responsible to begin with? Furthermore, the film does not shy away much from examining the effect of class differences on the case. It’s clear that there’s a rift between the educated, middle class, secular Nader and the lower class, more religious, and more impulsive Houjat. The fact that Houjet is less articulate and more impulsive than Nader gives Nader a clear advantage in court. Is this advantage deserved even if the facts of justice might be on his side? Houjat stands to make a lot of money if they settle this conflict out of court (the Iranian justice system apparently allows for such settlements even in criminal cases), is that really all he wants and does his desire for a pay off make the fact that he seems to deserve justice any less valid? We also see the effect of Razieh’s devout religious convictions on the proceedings and how they contrast with Nader’s more secular worldview.
What’s even more fascinating about this second case is how the film uses it to explore the central divorce. Nader’s dealings with Houjat and Razieh paint a decent portrait of the character’s troublesome, if somewhat admirable, refusal to run away from his problems. You can admire that he refuses to let Houjat shake him down, but you can also see how this same quality would make him difficult to live with. We also get a better idea of why it is unreasonable for Simin to ask Nader to leave behind his father given how much trouble comes out of just trying to find someone who will watch his father while he’s at work. At the same time we get an idea of Simin’s more pragmatic world view as well as her resourcefulness which seems wasted within a patriarchal Iranian society. The politics of making a film in Iran seems to have muted this aspect slightly, but the viewer quickly gets an idea of Simin’s ambitions in life and how she would be much happier if she emigrates. The case also gives the viewer a good idea of how their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) is torn apart by all of this and the compromises she needs to make in order to please both of her parents.
Clearly A Separation has a lot to say about relationships and about society, but I don’t want to underplay how well it works simply as a drama and as a court-room thriller of sorts. The various perspectives of the characters are effectively argued in front of a judge and the conflicting feelings the audience has about the case make these debates seem interesting rather than manipulative. The dialogue also seems quite strong throughout, though this is admittedly hard to judge from a subtitle translation. The film also expertly brings evidence to the table at just the right time to keep things interesting throughout and also finds the perfect details to be ambiguous about in regards to exactly what happens at certain points and how much certain characters know about them. The film also avoids the use of non-actors, a hit-or-miss technique that is often employed in films of the developing world, in its major roles. Leila Hatami and Shahab Hosseini are both experienced film actors and while Sareh Bayat and Peyman Maadi don’t have as many film credits it’s clear that the theatrical experience of the former and the writing abilities of the later have paid off. I don’t know that I’d give Oscars out for any of these performances, but they all very effectively convey their characters emotional states in some rather charged scenes.
The film is shot in a low-tech and matter of fact way, but it’s clear that the people making it are far from amateurs. The film has a sort of docudrama realism that feels all the more real because it was probably the result of necessity rather than artifice. It’s interesting that The Artist has been celebrated for doing “so much with so little” this year, when there are other movies like this which seem much more disadvantaged and manage to do much more ambitious things in spite of it. Its amazing how much food for thought writer/director Asghar Farhadi was able to find in such a seemingly simple and dialogue driven story, this is a film that will have you thinking about its content for days after you see it. It’s also amazing in how completely even handed it was in its depiction of a situation that gets out of hand fast. There are no good guys or bad guys in A Separation, nor are there any simple morals to take away from it. It’s simply an honest depiction of what happens when good people who depend on one another are divided by differences.
**** out of Four