A Separation, a tightly structured, emotionally astute new film from Iran, begins with a couple, at odds and in distress, arguing in front of a judge. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave the country with her daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), and Simin’s husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), insists on staying at home in Tehran to care for his frail and elderly father, who suffers from dementia and needs constant attention. Quite possibly there is more at issue than practical domestic arrangements — there are hints of suppressed anger in Nader’s demeanor, of long-simmering exasperation in Simin’s — but an Iranian courtroom may not be the best place to discuss intimate marital matters.
Nor, given that country’s strict censorship codes, is an Iranian film. But A Separation, written and directed by Asghar Farhadi (and Iran’s official Oscar submission), does not feel especially constrained. It is a rigorously honest movie about the difficulties of being honest, a film that tries to be truthful about the slipperiness of truth. It also sketches a portrait — perhaps an unnervingly familiar picture for American audiences — of a society divided by sex, generation, religion and class.
The partial split between Nader and Simin is only one of the schisms revealed in the course of a story that quietly and shrewdly combines elements of family melodrama and legal thriller. Because Nader refuses to agree to a divorce or to give the legally required permission for his daughter to travel abroad, he and Simin find themselves at an impasse. She goes to live with her parents, and he hires a young woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to help look after his father.
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Leila Hatami (Simin), Peyman Moadi (Nader), Shahab Hosseini (Hodjat), Sareh Bayat (Razieh), Sarina Farhadi (Termeh), Babak Karimi (Judge), Ali-Asghar Shahbazi (Nader’s Father), Shirin Yazdanbakhsh (Simin’s Mother), Kimia Hosseini (Somayeh) and Merila Zarei (Ms Ghahraei)
Running time: 123 minutes
Language: In Persian, with Chinese subtitles
Taiwan release: Today
Razieh, who arrives with her young daughter, has an anxious, plaintive manner, and her apparent unreliability brings minor irritation and then outright chaos into Nader’s life. Before long — and as a result of events I will leave for you to discover — Nader is back in court, embroiled in long arguments with Razieh and her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), an unemployed shoemaker laden with debt and seething with resentment, humiliation and angry piety.
The conflict between the two families, which often turns on forensic details and uncertain recollections, is inflamed by social tension. In Hodjat’s eyes Nader and Simin are part of a corrupt and entitled elite, arrogant and irreligious and full of contempt for an ordinary working man like him. And their attempts to be reasonable, compassionate and polite betray an unmistakable condescension, which Asghar Farhadi tacitly endorses by making Hodjat such a brute.
There are moments when the humanism of A Separation feels a bit schematic, as if the characters were pulled from a box of available types rather than painted in the shades of life. But there are also scenes that draw power from the subtlety of the performances, in particular the quiet, watchful portrayal by Sarina Farhadi (the director’s daughter) of a girl who is at once central and peripheral to the drama unfolding around her. Termeh, shy and studious, is desperate to please her parents and terrified that her family will collapse. Her parents, and the audience, continually overlook the intensity of her feelings, which nonetheless pervade the film, along with her unspoken hope that everything will work out in the end.