The title of “A Separation,” the 2011 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film, starts out as a literal description of the plight of Nader (Payman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), a middle-class Iranian couple. Simin ,who wants to flee the oppressive rule of Iran to give their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) a better life wants a divorce, since her husband Nader, burdened with taking care of his Alzheimer’s-stricken father, refuses to leave the country. Nader also won’t give up custody of Termeh unless she actually chooses to leave with Simin.
But this film, written and directed with startling efficiency by Asghar Farhadi, is about much more than a simple divorce case. “A Separation” is a story of barriers not just between husband and wife, but between the rich and the poor, the secular and the devout, the innocent and the guilty, the deceitful and the honest. The result is a fascinating document of a crumbling marriage that is a microcosm of the unfairness and hypocrisy in Iran’s legal system and socioeconomic structure.
The opening scene, a long take where Nader and Simin explain their situation to an unseen judge in a grubby office, sets the tone for the film. Simin thinks Nader should let his father die and flee to America, while Nader thinks Simin is selfish for making their daughter leave the only home she ever knew. Farhadi’s still camera, and his razor-sharp script (more on that later), shows how these two separate arguments devolve into a mess of accusations and old grudges that can bury into a marriage like ticks.
Simin does leave their home to live with her parents and take English classes (Rosetta Stone is not a viable option in Iran, I guess). Meanwhile, Nader hires Razieh (an utterly heartbreaking Sareh Bayat), a financially-strapped pregnant woman to take care of his father while he’s at work. Already stretched thin by her monetary situation, a two-hour commute and a possibly abusive husband (Shahab Hosseini), Razieh struggles with the immense burden of taking care of Nader’s father. In one scene, she must clean him after he wets himself, a situation made more difficult by the law that states a woman can’t disrobe a man who isn’t her husband, something Razieh, who is a devout Muslim, just can’t handle.
Making matters worse is the incident that brings these two threads together. A simple misunderstanding over missing money in Nader’s apartment leads to an accident that brings the legal system back into play in full force, and jeopardizes the future of all the parties involved. “A Separation” is so perfectly paced and written, that Farhadi doesn’t need any stylistic flourishes to tell his story. There is not a wasted shot or line of dialogue in “A Separation.” We always know what is a stake, especially when these two couples go to war with each other in court after the accident, and we are left wondering who is in control of the truth; and how much will pride and class go into what these people, already stretched to their limits, decide to do.
“A Separation” is definitely a morality play, and I hate to keep repeating myself, but it really is astonishing how Farhadi’s screenplay makes such a simple story into something so extraordinary complex. All of these characters, acted to the hilt by everyone involved, are free from being easily judged. There are no heroes and villains, these are flawed people who try to wade through a confusing world to try to make the right decisions, which leads to devastating consequences. Simin is both commendable for wanting to liberate her family from Iran’s oppression, but can also be selfish for refusing to acknowledge the desires of that family. Nader is the same way. After the accident involving Razieh, he is stubborn, hostile, and constantly changes his version of the incident. His prejudice against the poverty Razieh and her husband live in is apparent; yet at the same time he is a loving father and would move heaven and earth to give his ailing father the proper care. Razieh and her husband may also be hiding the truth, being so pressed to pay off creditors breathing down their necks. “A Separation” is completely objective. There are no heroes or villains, just people like you and me, dealing with problems that transcend language and country.
As the 123 minutes of “A Separation” race by, the constant payoffs and revelations of the journeys of these five people are unveiled like the best literature. There is something Dickensian about Farhadi’s approach to the story. But it’s the road that Nader and Simin take, that draws them into a vortex of their own making, that renders their marriage unfixable no matter how much empathy they have for each other. “A Separation” is a legal thriller that grows into a sociological study seamlessly. The final scene, where Simin and Nader’s precocious daughter is given a choice that could change her parents lives forever, shows how decisions based on actions are often left out of our hands. This film is about what falls through the cracks of divisions, both societal and personal.