A Separation, a Humanizing Snapshot of Wounded Family in Iran

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Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

In A Separation’s introductory scene a man and woman sit looking directly at the camera. They express their grievances to an unseen judge whose voice is heard, but who remains unseen. Simin (Leila Hatami) has called the meeting to plea for a divorce from her husband of 14 years Nader (Peyman Maadi) who refuses to go abroad with Simin and their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi).  Simin refers to the “situation” in Iran, which clearly means their daughter’s limited prospects because of her gender.  With a shock of red hair peeking out from beneath her head scarf and defiant manner, Simin is a contemporary Iranian woman seeking something better for her daughter.

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But the meeting ends with no real resolution. Simin cannot take her daughter abroad without her husband’s permission and so exists in a kind of limbo. She moves into her parents’ apartment but through a complex chain of events, finds herself alternately defending and suspecting her husband of involvement in an ugly act as the Academy Award nominated Iranian film A Separation unfolds.

Those judges chambers become an oft-returned to setting in this fifth feature film from noted Iranian director Asghar Farhadi who zooms in with sweaty, intense precision on the minutiae and the day to day lives of this Iranian family.  A Separation is a miniseries worth of absorbing drama squeezed into just 123 minutes, filled to the brim with hidden agendas, greed, pride, shame, class warfare, religious enmity, gender conflict and a feeling, by film’s end, that misunderstanding and mistrust are the price of being human.

Showing how the house of cards collapses without the ordering presence of a woman, Simin’s separation from her family has left Nader without a caretaker for his elderly father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), whose Alzheimer’s requires constant attention. The implication in A Separation is that women are often the ones holding families together, and any impairment of their role can spell disaster.

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Nader hires a young mother who travels a long distance each day with her young daughter in tow to watch the old man.  But the work is arduous and occasionally humiliating for the pious Razieh (Sareh Bayat). When Nader’s father is unable to change out of his own soiled clothes, the devout Razieh calls up her imam to receive guidance on how to help an elderly man out of his wet clothes without committing a mortal sin.

Shrouded in a black hijab to set off her dramatic features, actress Sareh Bayat is just one player in A Separation’s impressive ensemble cast. Shockingly beautiful, with enormous, sad eyes and an expressive face, Razieh feels like an Iranian answer to Joan Crawford or Bette Davis or any of those classic Hollywood women’s picture stars who made beguiling suffering their metier.

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

As much as Nader suffers with worry over his sick father, Razieh suffers with gnawing anxieties of her own. Her commute to work is exhausting, she’s pregnant and her husband is jobless. You sense the family’s entire future depends upon her ability to do this job.

But an ugly rift develops when Nader comes home to find his father alone, tied to his bed and Razieh nowhere to be seen. When she returns, they fight.  Razieh is pushed out of the apartment, accused of stealing and suffers an ugly fall on the hallway steps.

If you thought marital discord was a bummer, wait for the next phase of A Separation: a brutally protracted legal battle between Razieh alongside her depressed, furious husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) who demands that Nader play some price: either jail time or money, for his act. Like so many human conflicts, this schism is not reducible just to he-said-she-said. There are deep class divisions at work too: Razieh’s husband bears a very clear grudge against Nader for what he represents of an Iranian upper class immune to the suffering of the lower classes, even as Nader sees Hodjat as a brute who, he suspects, might even beat his wife.

The silent witness to all of this unhappiness is Nader and Simin’s daughter Termeh. A studious, sensitive girl, engaged in her own quieter war with adolescence, Termeh observes the motives and integrity of her parents over the course of the trial. The entire affair is obviously life changing for the girl, for what it shows of adult behavior, and the ethical rationalizations of her own parents.

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

For fans of the sort of world cinema that plunges you into the essence of life in another reality, A Separation is an intense, immersive dip into contemporary Iranian life. There is a naturalism to the plotting, a fly on the wall quality similar to the kitchen sink dramas of Fifties and Sixties-era British cinema mixed with a chilly study of modern morality reminiscent of director Michael Haneke’s work.

A Separation hangs in an almost perpetual state of limbo, with Simin anxious to flee the country and unable to do so, and the battles between husband and wife and family against family creating a climate of restiveness and a comparable feeling of real uneasiness in viewers.

Apart from its effectiveness as an engrossing courtroom drama, A Separation is an eye-opener for any Westerner conditioned to think of Iran as a country of religious zealots or oppressive men and obedient women. The agnostics like Nader and Simin, could be characters in a Woody Allen film with their light-filled modern Tehran apartment full of books and tutors and housekeepers. And even the deeply religious figures like Razieh are presented in a very sympathetic light for the sincerity of their religious beliefs and the moral code that guides them. Testament to director Farhadi’s balanced approach, each character in the film is both flawed and sympathetic. Everyone is in some degree guilty of moral failings. In any other legal drama “justice” would be the end result. In A Separation you feel that everyone has come out of this fracas compromised, wounded, and altered.

The film A Separation opens in Atlanta exclusively at the Tara Theatre on Friday, February 17, 2012.

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