A Separation (2011)
When A Separation won the Best Foreign Film Award at the 2012 Oscars, its writer and director, Asghar Farhadi, gave a heartfelt speech where he accepted the award on behalf of a proud people who “respect all cultures,” a country that is much more than portrayed on the news as a Middle Eastern state of agitation and repression. Then the Iranian state-run TV used the opportunity to insult Israel, saying that the Academy “bowed before Iranian culture,” their movie “left behind” the Israeli nominee (Footnote) and “the beginning of the end” of Israel’s influence as it “beats the drums of war.” Sigh. Just when it looks like progress can be made to build cultural bridges. A Separation is a nuanced tale of struggle between tradition, morality, and personal choice. It’s a movie worth taking pride in.
Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a married couple heading for a divorce. She wants to move to the West. He does not want to leave, especially since he must care for his elderly father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Simin wants a better life for herself as well as their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s own daughter). Simin does not want to leave without her daughter but cannot get the judge to give her custody without Nader’s approval. Simin has moved back in with her parents. Nader hires a working-class maid, Razieh (Sareh Bayet), to care for his father while he’s away at work. Razieh is working unbeknownst to her husband, who would disapprove but has been unemployed for nine months. Caring for the elderly man is a lot more than she bargained for. At one point, Razieh calls an imam to ask if it is a sin to change the elderly man’s soiled pants. Then one day Nader comes home to find hid father sprawled out on the floor, tied to his bed, and locked in the apartment. When Razieh comes back, she says she had an emergency and keeps it vague. Nader fires her, she demands payment for the day, and he pushes her outside his door. The repercussions of this action will be larger than either could have imagined. Razieh and her husband accuse Nader of intentionally pushing the woman, and when she fell she miscarried her baby. Nader is being tried for murder, but nothing is as clear-cut as what it seems.
There’s so much to dissect in the intimate, thrilling, and observant little movie about imperfect people living under an imperfect system. It’s far more than the dissolution of a marriage and its impact that has on their family. It’s about the separation of moral relativism, compromises, cultural estrangement, and the concepts of justice in a world brokered by unjust forces. A Separation is really an ongoing court case that ensnares all the characters and brings them down in some degree. The more information we learn, the more we start questioning exactly what we knew about these characters and their circumstances. We’ll get speeches about doing the right thing in the face of opposition, and yet characters will routinely lie to save their own self-interest in the sacrifice of truth. You’re thrown into the middle of this drama and by the end you’ll likely feel exhausted by how emotionally charged the whole thing is. Lots of breathless arguing, lots of teary-eyed emotions, lots of unvarnished pain exposed, and very little in the way of resolution. This is an agonizing film that doesn’t feel the need to kowtow to the hopes of an audience for a happy ending. The lives of these characters are too complicated for tidy resolutions. The open ending, where Nader and Simin await their daughter’s decision over which parent she will live with, feels perfect considering that these people, due to circumstance both personal and political, are resigned to limitations on their happiness.
This is one of those movies where there are no real villains. You can see everybody’s plight and find some reasonable empathy for these people. Initially, the audience sympathy seems to be completely with Nader. He doesn’t want a divorce but feels indebted to taking care of his ailing father. He feels like he cannot abandon his father to live in the West. Simin is more vague about her rationale for wanting to leave the country, though one can only assume that her concern for her daughter is directly tied to the subjugated roles of women in Iran. Otherwise, her daughter is apart of a middle-class family where education is prized. Simin callously says that the old man is so far gone into dementia, why does it matter? The tension becomes whether Nader would rather care for his aged father or secure a brighter future for his daughter. After this opening marital clash in front of a judge, the film mostly follows Nader and his care of his father. When he confronts Razieh and is fuming about how he discovered his father, we’re there with him. Then when he’s accused of murder, a charge we know seems preposterous given what we’ve witnessed, our empathy further aligns with Nader, who we fill is wrongfully accused of something so serious it will wreck his life and family. Then when Simin reappears, and seemingly believes the worst of the story, it feels like she’s using the fraught circumstances to her advantage to force her daughter’s hand into deciding to leave Iran. But then the movie continues and you see that Simin has more at stake, Razieh is a sad woman penned in by circumstances, and Termeh is not the innocent child she appears to be. Your loyalties will be pulled in multiple directions until you ultimately conclude that these aren’t good people or bad people but merely people, fairly relatable and sympathetic.
A Separation shows a different side to Iran, a side that most Americans don’t see given the news coverage. The Iran on display in the film is a world in conflict. There’s the emerging voice of women conflicting with the male sense of privilege, there’s the conflict between classes illustrated by the stark difference sin living conditions between Nader and Razieh, who must make lengthy commutes just to earn a pittance, the conflict between parents who say they want what is bets for their child but provide her with false choices and use her as a battering ram against the other side, the conflict between a justice system that must stick to the letter of the law and the cases that cannot be so simply defined, the conflict between allegiance and self-interest, the conflict between personal gain and the truth, the conflict of caring for the old versus establishing a life of opportunity for the young, and the conflict between religious faith and daily living. There’s so much going on in this movie that every detail feels telling, ever actor feels rooted is reality, and every new moment further complicates an already messy situation.
A Separation is the kind of meaty drama that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make anymore. It’s patient and uncompromising, trusting its audience to wade through nuance and ambiguity rather than be told explicitly how to feel. The complex character work, alarming intimacy, and observational details of a society in relatable turmoil build the foundation of one very enthralling, thrilling, deeply resonant piece of work. A Separation is an example of superior filmmaking and the idea that movies from around the globe, even places that our politicians demagogue as an “axis of evil,” can tell universally human stories. This is a movie that will spark discussion long after it’s over.
Nate’s Grade: A