Oscar-worthy ‘A Separation’ a nuanced, vivid mosaic of life in modern Iran
If you had to decide between keeping your family together under impossible circumstances, or emigrating alone to a new place with more opportunities to make a better life for your child, which would you choose? Such is the central dilemma that fuels in A Separation, an absorbing, and powerful Iranian domestic drama from filmmaker Asghar Farhadi. Eloquent and well-reasoned, it’s a peek under the burkha cloaking private life in modern Iran. Farhadi views his subject with a thoughtful humanity that makes this film the front runner for this year’s Foreign Language Academy Award.
Farhadi’s film is in no way a diatribe; it doesn’t point the finger of blame at men, or women, or Islamic faith, or the Quran. Instead, it’s an intricate layering-on of circumstances to which characters respond with varying degrees of courage, fear, pride, despair, and a series of incremental half-truths, thereby morphing an initial misunderstanding into something complex and untenable for all concerned. A Separation begins at the point where the state fails to serve its people, then documents the resulting clash of viewpoints with a shrewd insight into human nature.
At the center of the drama is Simin (Leila Hatami), a modern, forward-thinking woman, and her husband, Nader (the excellent Peyman Maadi), a hard-working bank employee. In the opening scene, they explain to a civil judge why they’re seeking a divorce; it’s not that they want to split up, but they’ve been trying forever to obtain visas to move to another country with more opportunities for their 11-year-old daughter. And now that the visas have finally arrived—with only 40 days left before they expire—Nader no longer feels he can leave his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father behind.
The only way Simin can move away with their daughter without her husband is if they divorce. But under Iranian law, the only legal grounds for divorce is spouse abuse or drug addiction, and since Simin declares Nader is “a decent man,” their divorce is denied. She has to settle for a separation, and to prove she means business when it comes to the future of their daughter, Simin moves back in with her mother—perhaps hoping that Nader will soon see things her way.
In the meantime, Nader is now the sole caretaker of his elderly father, as well as the sole on-site parent to the couple’s bright, studious daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Father and daughter are very close; he coaches her through her studies at night and drops her off and picks her up from school every day. Their relatively secular family (Simin and Termeh wear simple headscarves over western clothes) is comfortable enough to afford a tutor for Termeh a couple of times a week. But with Simin gone, Nader must hire a young woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to come in and care for his father during the day.
It’s a dubious arrangement from the start. On day one, the devout Razieh has to call her religious advisor to find out if bathing the old man and helping him go to the bathroom count as a “sin” for seeing a naked man other than her husband. And Razieh (secretly pregnant under her voluminous skirts and veils), who isn’t spry enough to keep her charge from wandering outside into traffic, resorts to desperate measures to manage him.
When Razieh suffers a miscarriage, an investigation is launched; anyone found responsible can be imprisoned for murder. Razieh’s volatile, unemployed, working-class husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) files a complaint blaming Nader. Counter-complaints are filed. The question of a financial settlement (everyone calls it “blood money”), would be viewed as an admission of guilt. And as everyone maneuvers into the most defensible position, it’s the watchful Termeh who sees how the elusive truth is subtly (and in one case, outrageously) bent to suit individual needs.
Filmmaker Farhadi constructs this nuanced, yet vivid mosaic of brewing conflict—between genders, classes, generations, and ideologies—in a way that makes all viewpoints comprehensible, and all choices freighted with consequence, especially the open-ended one that concludes the film. There are no saints or villains here, only life-sized people trying to navigate a culture in transition.
★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Peyman Maadi, Leila Hatami, and Sareh Bayat. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. A Sony Classics release. (PG-13) 123 minutes. In Farsi with English
subtitles. Opens February 24.