With A SEPARATION, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has taken the most ordinary of stories, played out by the most ordinary of people, and created an extraordinary work about the tangential relationship between justice and the law, honesty and truth. How good intentions can go horribly wrong, and because of them, the most considered, logical lie can destroy a life, while the truth can kill the soul.
Central to the story is a pending divorce between Simin and Nader. Its not that they have stopped loving one another, but they have come to a crossroads. She wants to leave the country taking their 11-year-old daughter, Termah, abroad where there will be greater opportunities for all of them. Initially agreeing to the move and even going so far as to obtain the necessary travel visas, Nader now wants to remain in Iran, taking care of his Alzheimer’s-stricken father. By law, Termah remains with Nader, but being a modern thinker, he leaves it up to the girl to choose where she would rather live, unwittingly placing more responsibility on her than she is capable handling. Simin returns to her parents, placing the burden of caring for her father-in-law on Nader. He hires a caretaker, Razieh, a working class and religiously observant woman, though neither of them realizes its more than she can handle. She is forced to bring her 4-year-old to work with her and is ill-equipped for the specialized care her charge requires. She has also neglected to tell her husband, Hodjat, who is not a modern thinker, that she is working for a single man in his home. Tellingly, and without prompting, the little girl takes it upon herself to protect her mother, and promises not to tell her father what is happening, to which Razieh responds with relief and a blessing on the girl from God. One lie leads to another, one stubborn moment of pride leads to more hurt feelings, and it all leads up to a fateful incident that threatens the stability of everyone involved. Throughout, what is said is less important than when it is said and to whom.
Farhadi presents his characters with a hand-held, cinema-verite style that creates the atmosphere of a documentary. The events leading up to a fall and a hospital stay that results from it are revealed without giving everything away, forcing the audience to ponder the deeper motives of all involved, and leading to a razor-sharp tension about what each person, forced to contend with greater and greater amounts of stress, will do when forced to confront his or her individual responsibility. Frequent visits to a judge in his chambers where chaos is the norm and the impetus is for everyone to settle quickly rather than emotionally, emphasizes the tricky nature of finding that responsibility, particularly when everyone involved is basically decent and trying to do the best he or she can under the circumstances. The stew of politics and religion that govern Iran take second place to a far more interesting, and pointed, consideration of the uneasy relationship between the classes. By keeping women central to the story, Farhadi creates a complex picture of womens lives in Iran, from the modern, self-determined Simin, to her daughter, encouraged to be both strong and a scholar by her parents, to the submissive, chador-wearing Razieh, who must call a cleric to determine if washing the old man after he soils himself is the sin she fears that it might be. There is more than a whiff of the class-struggle, too, deftly intertwined, with Razieh’s husband, unemployed, in debt and suffering from depression demands to be considered a human being, not an animal, when pleading his case to whomever he can get to listen. For his part, representing the modern, upwardly mobile Iranian male, Nader is always shown as both stubborn, but nurturing, tenderly caring for his father as his condition worsens without complaint.
A SEPARATION is a superb drama of good people doing things that would, under other circumstances, appall them. Emotionally resonant beyond the filmmakers own country and culture, it is a compassionate yet searingly precise film that refuses to name villains, nor to let any of its protagonists off the hook.