A Separation, an Iranian film written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, is an intricate family drama set in current-day Tehran. It won both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for 2011, and was also nominated for Academy's Best Original Screenplay Award as well.
The film begins with a couple explaining to a judge why they want a divorce. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to emigrate to another country where she feels they can have a better life for themselves and, more importantly, for their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). They had filed the needed paperwork months ago and recently it finally came through. But her husband Nader (Peyman Mooadi), who had previously been agreeable to the idea, refuses to go, ostensibly because of his father who is suffering from Alzheimer's and now needs someone with him at all times. Simin, fearing the opportunity may never come again, is determined to go regardless and wants to take Termeh with her. But under Iranian law, she needs Nader's permission for that and he refuses to give it. So they feel that divorce is the only option left to them. The judge says that this is insufficient grounds for a divorce and refuses to approve their request, leaving them without any resolution to their problem. Simin, who had been looking after Nader's father, leaves their home and moves in with her family, while Termeh, who is in school, stays.
Their conflict becomes further complicated when Nader tries to find someone to look after his father while he is away at work. He cannot afford a professional caretaker, so he ends up hiring a woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayet) who is a friend of a cousin of his wife's. Complications arise almost immediately. Razieh, who has a young daughter and is pregnant with her second child, is reluctant to take the job but she desperately needs the money due to her hot-headed husband, Hodjat, (Shahab Hosseini) who is not only seemingly incapable of holding a job but is also being pursued by creditors. But it is soon clear that Nader, unwilling to see just how bad his father's Alzheimer's has become, has underestimated the level of assistance his father now needs, and on the first day Razieh has to contend with Nader's father soiling himself because he no longer realizes when he needs to go. The situation quickly deteriorates over the next couple of days and ends up in an argument between Nader, who comes home and finds his father alone and tied to the bed from which he has fallen, and Razieh who had left because she needed to go to the doctor. The argument ends up with Nader forcing Razieh from his apartment, and Razieh then falling on the stairs and ending up miscarrying. This escalates the conflict between the two families, with charges and counter-charges being filed and both husbands faced with being jailed.
What makes A Separation really work is the level of complexity that Farhadi brings out in the characters. There is no black-and-white here, no simplistic good-guys vs bad guys, only ordinary human beings having to deal with the kinds of problems that people all over the world have to deal with. For the most part, all of Farhadi's characters are people who are trying their best to do what they feel the right thing is, but who nonetheless are all too humanly flawed - pride and stubbornness being first and foremost - and who are not above trying to twist things in their favor even when in their heart of hearts they know they're doing the wrong thing. In lesser hands this would have been dealt with a comedic fashion, but in Farhadi's we are presented with realistic drama that everyone can relate to from their own lives.
There is also a subtleness present in A Separation which makes it both distinctly Iranian and yet universal at the same time. The dynamics of culture permeate the film and one gets a sense of just what it means to be an ordinary Iranian without the skewing political bombast and rhetoric which is all that most people ever see. The way in which the two families end up resolving their dispute in particular illustrates how different their culture is from ours. But at the same time, the characters in A Separation are universal in their lives, their situations and their human frailties as they try to cope with the same kinds of problems that people all over the world have to contend with. In Farhadi's characters, we see ourselves and/or people we know.
Nader is, as Simin says to the divorce judge at the beginning of the film, a decent man and a good father to their daughter, the latter illustrated in scenes where he pushes Termah to be confident and stand up for herself. And you can sympathize with Nader as he finds himself increasingly crushed by the need to try and care for his father. Two brief scenes are particularly poignant. In the first, where Nader and Simin are arguing before the judge, Simin tells Nader "Your father does not even know you!", to which Nader responds "But I know him!" And later, when he is alone and trying to get his father to change his clothes, and his father is no longer even aware enough to do anything but just sit like a lump, Nader struggles with the task, his father being too heavy even for him to handle alone, and finally he just breaks down weeping, realizing the impossibility of his situation, yet holding on to his father, unwilling to let go. But for all of his good intentions, Nader is all too humanly fallible as well. In the conflict over his possibly having caused Razieh's miscarriage, he makes statements which he knows are not true, most particularly claiming not to have known that she was pregnant. And when his daughter, Termeh, catches him on this, he puts the moral burden on her, asking if she wants her father to go to jail. And later, when Termeh ends up lying to the judge to support his lie, and Nader sees what his unwillingness to admit the truth is doing to her, he still gives in to weakness and lets the lie stand rather than risk the consequences of telling the truth.
But Nader is not the only character with human weaknesses. Simin tries to use Termeh as a way of getting Nader to go along with emigrating, just as Nader is using Termeh to keep Simin from emigrating. And at the same time, Termeh tries to manipulate the situation to keep her parents from breaking up. Hodjat, who is more flawed than any other character, tries to maniuplate the situation to get the money he needs to pay off his creditors. And even Razieh, who is the only one who is truly religious, is not above telling half-lies, partly out of pride and partly out of not wanting to admit being in the wrong.
In many ways, Razieh is one of the most intricately drawn characters in A Separation and serves to counter the common perception most people have of religious Iranians. Far from being the kind of militant shouting hard-liner we are presented with in the news, Razieh is simply someone who is devout in her faith and who is truly concerned with her everyday actions being proper within Islamic tenets. In an early scene where Nader's father has soiled himself, she calls her imam to ask whether or not it is proper for her to clean him up and change his clothes (to which the imam responds that yes, given the circumstances, it is proper for her to do so). Razieh is a person for whom sin is a very real thing with very real consequences, and this matters to her, even when doing the right thing comes with a heavy price. She reminded me very much of an aunt of mine who was a very strict Catholic. Again, this works for A Separation's universality, for even in secular societies we still have people - often in our own families - to whom this sort of thing still matters, and the film presents them in a way that we can relate to.
All of the actors give excellent performances, to the point that we feel that we're watching real people going through these crises in their daily lives rather than actors following a script. Payman Mooadi's Nader reveals much through his eyes and his expression, and while he works to keep his feelings under control, we see his inner turmoil on his face, particularly in the scenes where he knows he's setting the wrong example for his daughter, and worse, allowing his own weakness to emotionally blackmail her into doing what he's always tried to teach her is wrong. The same goes for Sarina Farhadi's Termeh, whose eyes show the hurt and disillusionment she feels after she lies to the judge to support her father's lie. And Shahab Hosseini's Hodjat is a subtle performance, making an unlikeable character at least somewhat sympathetic as he rails about, blaming everyone else for his troubles, by showing him to be a man who simply has no control over himself and is constantly being undone by his emotional impulses and bad judgment.
To his enormous credit, Farhadi does not give any of his characters easy outs for their problems. They do not get sudden magical insights, nor do they receive providential rescues. They must wrestle with them the way real people do and accept that the resolution, if it comes, may be far from satisfactory. We are reminded of this as the film ends, with Nader and Simin again outside the divorce judge's office, left waiting to find out which of them Termeh will decide to go with. The audience is left not knowing any more than they do. No tiy resolution, no neat Hollywood ending, just life the way it really is for most people.
Highly, highly recommended.