A compelling story about an unraveling marriage, the complexities of contemporary Iran, and the damage wrought by divorce, writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is a stunning film that is equally intimate, moving, and free of affectation. It’s wrapped in a gritty realness that is disarming and engrossing. That it’s been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and earned a score of festival honors is no surprise — movies as genuine and fearless as this one are a rare breed.
The story focuses on Nader and Simin (Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami), a middle-class married couple living in Tehran, with their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter); and Nader’s father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease. The fact that their marriage is in a tailspin becomes evident in the movie’s opening sequence, where Nader and Simin bicker in front of a divorce judge (who is heard but not seen on camera, giving the scene an interview/documentary feel). Simin wants their daughter raised abroad, away from the turmoil engulfing Iran, something to which Nader initially agreed upon; now, he is unwilling to leave his father behind. Compromise seems unlikely.
Unable to break the impasse, Simin moves to her mother’s home and sues for divorce. In need of a caregiver to look after his father, Nader hires young mother Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who keeps the job a secret from her hot-tempered husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), a strict Muslim who would never allow her to work in a man’s household without the wife present.
The job begins badly and steadily gets worse. On the first day, the elderly man wets himself and the deeply devout Razieh worries that it might be a sin to help him change his clothes. The next day, he slips out of the apartment and she is forced to chase him — a dangerous activity, given that she is four months pregnant. On day three, Nader and Termeh arrive home and find the old man alone and unconscious on the floor with one hand tied to the bed.
Nader is understandably upset, and when Razieh returns he confronts her about her treatment of his father, as well as some missing money. He ejects from his home; under circumstances that aren’t shown, she falls on the stairs and later miscarries. Nader is accused of murder, and in turn charges Razieh with theft and assault. The unfortunate situation is made even uglier by the deceit and selfishness of the people involved and, as is often the case, it’s the children who suffer.
If it had been produced by a major Western studio, the story no doubt would have devolved into high melodrama with a tidy ending. Iranian cinema is simple and to the point, as well as patient and observant, and Farhadi manages to avoid compromising his carefully crafted and very human tale or his deeply flawed and wholly believable characters.
Unlike many other well-known Iraniam filmmakers, he’s also perfectly willing to confront and openly question the stifling socio-religious bureacracy that Iranians must often wade through. It’s a subtle but bold move, especially at a time with so much tension between Iran and much of the rest of the world, and with so many other Iranian filmmakers in prison or living in exile.
Religion factors into A Separation a great deal, but Farhadi allows the nature of deeply held beliefs rather than their rhetoric to drive the narrative. The result is a story with a broad reach, one that could take place just about anywhere and involve almost anyone.