A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi)
Before you read anything else I’ve got to say below, one message that really needs to be put across: see this movie. The superb, taut and emotionally gripping Iranian film won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Foreign Film so you don’t even have to just trust me on it, but one thing that’s important about it is that you not read much about it before you see it. Don’t even read detailed descriptions of its plot. What you want to do is go in expecting a heavy and stark drama about a dissolving marriage and the difficulties it gives rise to in the context of a heavily patriarchal society oppressive toward women. If that’s what you know about A Separation, you’re in good shape. All of my reviews contain spoilers and the ones here won’t ruin the movie for you, but you deserve the opportunity to see it fresh. When you’ve done so, come back here and we’ll talk about it.
The opening of A Separation establishes the central married couple in crisis with arresting economy and directness, the two pleading their case for a divorce into the camera in a sort of reversal and deconstruction of the first shot in Patton with the title character barking motivation at us. Everything is clear from the start: Leila Hatami’s Simin and Peyman Moadi’s Nader are not the traditional at-each-other’s-throats Married… with Children stereotype. Rather, their conflict is one of pragmatism and practicality — Simin hates the realities of Iranian life and wants to leave in order to build a better life for her daughter; Nader is caring for his father, struggling with Alzheimer’s, and doesn’t wish to leave him. They don’t hate one another but emotions run high and, against an unsympathetic eye, their needs go unheeded. Hence one of many separations to which the title refers.
That neither Simin nor Nader has the moral high ground here — that, in fact, there is no such thing — is the first clue that this film has a more complex thrust than its publicized premise suggests. None of the typical conflicts that arise from a crumbling relationship even appear here; there’s no sense of loss within the couple, no artificial pseudo-romantic dread. The disagreements are rational — and in dealing with the consequences of the necessary separation, Nader sets the wheels in motion of the real story here by hiring a lady to care for his dad while he’s at work, since Simin is not to be around during the day any longer. We spend most of our time with Nader — a clearly loving father who’s wonderful to daughter Termeh and means well to all but is also relentlessly protective and defensive — and with the person he fatefully hires, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a pious and good-hearted woman whose life is a perpetual mess, leading to a pair of crises that taint her relationship with Nader and ultimately cause him to shove her away from his home after she leaves the old man unattended for too long.
From there, from this falling together of tiny details, we are given a fascinating and resonant examination of not just what the truth is about what happened that day — if Nader pushed Razieh hard enough to cause a miscarriage, if he was aware that she was pregnant, if he is to be charged for murder — but the nature of truth itself, and in the heartrendingly humanist fashion of Jean Renoir, the fact that virtually everyone is trying to do the best they can. Every major character in A Separation is sympathetic to some degree, and constantly at odds, so that the detective story and melodrama that leaves us riveted by tiny intricacies, and the marital crisis dividing two good people, become metaphorically intertwined, all the while with — as Renoir would’ve said — everyone having their reasons, and everyone a fleshed-out and breathing character.
Director Asghar Farhadi crafts with loving care a story that could happen anywhere, but could only happen in Iran in quite this fashion, and he delights in pulling us all in four or more directions with our compassion and empathy, things he trusts us to feel toward everyone, reasonable and otherwise. At the climax, when Nader finally emerges with a clever righteousness that plays on Razieh’s intensely held religious beliefs, we don’t feel a sense of triumph — only of sad inevitability. With beautiful handheld work, Farhadi seeks out the smallest of details and pushes his story along methodically and gently, revealing the perfect amount of both story information and character sense in ingenious proportion, always cutting away before resorting to any obvious, rote, or familiar point for a film about divorce or about a court battle. There’s so much here, and it’s so hard to believe by the time we’re finished that it wasn’t somehow a story of real people, of the real world. As Farhadi has said, the modern moral battles are those against good and good; he’s made the eloquent point in script and film both by bringing us into the lives of these men and women whose story not only captivates us, but whom we grow to like quite intensely. If you’re the type to bemoan films with no one to root for, how can you react to one with no one not to root for?
Although the performances are uniformly excellent — Sareh Bayat’s Razieh the picture of tentative desperation, Shahab Hosseini an overgrown sexist brat with a barely-hidden secret heart expressed perfectly in his angry-kind face — special mention has to be made for Peyman Moadi, who captures so well this balancing act of catastrophic good intentions and completely sells his easy rapport with his daughter (stunningly played by the director’s own daughter, Sarina Farhadi) while displaying a believably visceral reaction to the events that unfold. Of many alarmingly real moments, the standout may be his statement that he “knew” Razieh was pregnant, but did not know in the heated moment — a devastatingly honest and revealing remark that might seem too writerly on paper but is pushed to an oblivion of truth and directness by the actor, who tosses it off like one of many such moments he shares with his daughter. He tells her things, secret things and complicated things, that a trusting father might tell his daughter, but that trusting fathers almost never tell their daughters in the movies. That alone is enough to make this film special. And Termeh, of course, wraps it all together by the way that the film must close only one way, with her decision of which of her loving parents to live with. Her face betrays her weathered sincerity, the ache of having to choose; we understand because we share it with her, and the film ends without us knowing because she deserves for us to share in her torment and her sense of great loss, the loss to which all this noise has finally amounted.