For all the diplomatic enmity between America and Iran, it’s good sometimes to be reminded how much we have in common. In A Separation we find the story of a divorce equal in emotional weight to any in our own cinema, not to mention a fascinating glimpse inside the Iranian legal system. It’s no wonder that this film has garnered in the Golden Globe for best foreign language film — among many others — and it’s a strong contender for the same category at the Academy Awards.
Náder (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are separating. Simin wants to move abroad, but Náder refuses to leave his Alzheimer’s-stricken father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). Further, he refuses to grant custody — his to give or withhold under the law — of their twelve-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). And so in an effort to force his hand before her visa expires, Simin moves back in with her mother.
With Simin gone, Náder must hire a housekeeper and caretaker for his father. One of Simin’s friends has a sister-in-law, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), whose family could use some financial help; her husband, Houjat (Shahab Hosseini), has been out of work for months, and the creditors have taken to sporadically imprisoning him. Houjat’s short fuse probably doesn’t help matters much.
But the workload is heavy of Razieh, especially considering the long commute, caring for her young daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), and the fact that she’s almost twenty weeks pregnant. When Náder’s father loses his continence on top of everything else, the moral implications of cleaning him become even more onerous — Razieh is a devout woman who wears the chador outside and has the phone number for religious advice always at hand.
Push eventually comes to shove; Náder comes home to find his father fallen out of bed, his wrist tied to a nearby chair, and Razieh nowhere in sight. He angrily drives her from the apartment; she falls on the stairs. That night she suffers a miscarriage, and Houjat holds Náder to blame.
The subsequent investigation is the heart of the film, and writer/director/producer Asghar Farhadi handles it masterfully. It plays out like a game of chess, with the power and initiative flowing back and forth across the mediator and judge’s desk. Did Náder realize Razieh was pregnant? Did Razieh break the law herself in leaving Náder’s father alone as she did? Would Houjat’s frustration turn into violence? Would he accept a smaller compensation?
As a counterpoint to the trial proceedings, Farhadi plays the escalating tensions of Náder and Simin’s divorce, and how the case’s revelations affect Termeh’s image of her father. The narrative is complex, but never confusing; seemingly small details are brought to greater prominence with the expertise of Hitchcock’s classic mysteries, and the ethical nuances are presented carefully without easy answers.
On the other hand, some of the cultural nuances don’t seem to translate well to a foreign audience. I was left with a strong impression of a class imbalance between the middle-class — but certainly in no way wealthy — family of Náder and Simin and the poorer family of Houjat and Razieh, but it felt like there was a lot going over my head. Similarly, I got the feeling from some of the dialogue about politeness and respect that there were nuances to the characters’ particular choices of wording that the subtitles simply didn’t capture.
Moaadi and Hatami are both excellent as the separating couple, though Simin seems far more conflicted about the prospect of a divorce than Náder does. Sarina Farhadi does a fantastic job as Termeh, trying to come to terms with what’s going on around her, and as desperate to keep her family together as any American child going through a divorce would be. Bayat and Hosseini also do a great job of making their motivations clear to an audience that might not immediately recognize them.
But part of that clarity again goes back to Asghar Farhadi’s excellent writing. Iran’s political censorship may impose heavy restrictions on its cinema — Circumstance certainly couldn’t have been made there — but a talent like Farhadi can still produce a powerful, meaningful work of commentary on film.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.