Damn, Iranian domestic melodramas, where have you been all my life? After a season of over-inflated Oscar-bait films (see The Descendants or The Artist) it’s nice to finally watch a movie that delivers the goods as advertised. Asghar Farhadi, the writer and director of the simultaneously insular and universal film, A Separation, pulls off a rare feat by creating a painfully intimate look into the domestic lives of middle-class Iranians that touches on themes common to all of humanity and thereby highlighting the shades of moral ambiguity in us all.
* POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD – READ WITH CAUTION *
Farhadi pulls no punches and throws us right into the thick of it from the start. Simin (the sternly beautiful Leila Hatami) has worked tirelessly to secure visas for her family’s emigration – however, the dream of leaving Iran is not a dream shared by everyone in her family. A flummoxed Nadir (Peyman Maadi – a modicum of bearded middle class frustration) can’t fathom leaving behind his Alzheimer’s riddled father to follow his wife to a new life abroad. “He doesn’t even know you’re his son!” his wife screams heartlessly at him. “But I know he’s my father!” Nadir replies. It’s instant heartbreak within the film’s tightly controlled opening moments.
You see, they’re telling their story to a judge. They’ve filed for divorce. Nadir has given their proposed separation his blessing – for he knows his wife is a stubborn as him. What he doesn’t know – and what we don’t know until later in the film – is how stubborn their young daughter (played by the director’s own offspring) is as well. She wants her parents to stay together at all costs, and so she conducts her coup d’etat by refusing to move from her grandfather’s house knowing that her mother would never go abroad without her and thus forcing Simin to stay indefinitely with her own mother across town. Farhadi brilliantly shows how parents cruelly use their children as pawns in conflicts, and how often times that gamesmanship produces a master manipulator in their child. Lesson number one: cruelty begets cruelty.
The plot thickens when Nadir hires a meek, devoutly religious pregnant woman to care for his father during the day. Following an accident, accusations from both families fly from their poisoned tongues, and the woman’s hot-tempered unemployed husband makes a play for blood money when his wife miscarries. Did it result rom Nadir pushing her out onto the steps after finding she left his father alone and tied to the bed? Was it from the stress of having to work and deal with her husband who we later learn is a psychological mess? Or was it from something else? It’s a bit of a mystery that slowly unfolds as motives are uncovered, lies are told to cover lies, and doubt reigns supreme. Lesson number two: lies beget lies.
There’s some subtle jabs to class and religion while the film takes on the form of a legal procedure. You see, in Iran, the courtroom is second only to the bedroom in closed-door intimacy. The judge rules from a tiny bureaucratic office where both sides are allowed to shout off at each other from uncomfortable couches. As the muddiness of what happened and who should be held responsible for what becomes increasingly less clear, the frustration on the judge’s face and his desire to rule fairly equates to the same tumult of emotions developing in the viewer. In a repressed theocracy, it’s fascinating to watch the anger simmer beneath the surface guised by protocol and a desire to appear polite and not dishonor one’s own name only to have it erupt at the most inopportune of times.
A Separation is ultimately a film built around tiny moments of dignity that allow you to sympathize will all sides. Witness Nadir teaching his young daughter independence by having her negotiate the purchase of gas for their car. Or better yet, watch Simin’s breakdown in the presence of her mute father-in-law crying out for her husband to just do one simple thing to make everything better. “Why can’t he just ask me to stay?” she laments to her father-in-law, a witness to her emotional crime who will never be able to testify. Lesson number three: stubbornness leads to a silent world of pain and separation from loved ones.
Farhadi boldly asks us not to judge, and in an ending worthy of Michael Haneke at his best, we witness the married couple pulled apart, separated by an open door in an anonymous government building and engulfed by all the silence in the world while their daughter sits with a judge, her small inconsolable frame left to take on the weight of deciding with which parent she wishes to live. We, too, wait with bated breath in communal silence and heartbreak with Simin and Nadir.
Farhadi’s A Separation is a master stroke of shrieking egalitarian humanism in a world of judgmentally quiet isolating misery.
Written by David H. Schleicher