I’m still too young to know how painful a divorce can be. I’ve also never lived in Iran, nor have I been so devoutly religious that I let a fear of sin dictate my actions.
But the emotions in “A Separation” are universal. Asghar Farhadi’s film gets at the harsh reality of everyday life. It’s enthralling, urgent, complex, saddening and one of the best films of the year.
“A Separation’s” first hard truth is that a broken marriage never just affects two parties. Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a middle-class couple living in Iran with their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). They’re comfortable and care for each other, but Simin knows they can be better off and wants to move. Nader won’t budge because his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) is suffering through Alzheimer’s. Because the two must each go their separate ways, Simin files for divorce in a gripping opening sequence done in one shot.
Both are right, both are caring individuals for their family, and both are stuck at an impasse. With Simin gone, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to work as a nurse. Razieh has her young daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) and has another on the way, so she desperately needs what little money Nader can now offer as a single parent.
But this poses a problem for Razieh. As Nader’s father slips deeper into dementia, she finds herself unable to care for him without betraying her religion. The situation worsens, and one day Nader comes home to find his door locked, his house empty, and his father tied to the bed and collapsed on the floor. Razieh has a good reason for leaving, but be it her religion or something more personal and emotional, she’s unable to explain herself, and Nader pushes her out of the house in anger. As she tumbles down the stairs, we learn she’s had a miscarriage and is now suing Nader for murder.
The remainder of the film is a tautly emotional legal battle that never reeks of a crime procedural. “A Separation” is ripe with emotions both heartwarming and heart wrenching as it delves into the complications between what is right, what is legal and what is necessary. Sadly, Farhadi’s film knows all too well they don’t always collide.
“A Separation” is not a film about bad things happening to good people. Every character strives to be intelligent, righteous and honest, and as tragedy and grief strike, each acts in a way they absolutely must.
It’s this aspect that separates Farhadi’s film from similar American films, perhaps most notably the wonderful “Blue Valentine.” We may not take sides in an American conflict, but the words we English speakers are capable of throwing around can be harsh and meaningless. We struggle to say the truth or what is necessary because our personal flaws and emotions get in the way.
The characters in “A Separation” are more spiritually guided, and their words are certain, necessary and wise. Consider a scene when Nader and Simin debate whether Termeh should continue in her current school. Razieh’s husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) has begun staking out Termeh’s school certain that her tutor’s testimony was a lie. Their words in this devastating argument are calm, but urgent. Each speaks the truth, neither can concede believing what they do, and the characters find themselves at another impasse.
Even in the courtroom scenes, Nader and Razieh trade testimonies in which neither seems wrong knowing the position each is in. Nader is a good person but is rightfully angry with Razieh for the dwindling condition of his father. Razieh on the other hand is honest, devout and driven by desperation. Her loss and pain is just as great.
This is a film that hurts on so many levels because like a child forced to choose between parents in a divorce, to pick a side is impossible.
“A Separation” is lovingly made as well. The camera is handheld but the cinematography has clarity and purpose. Some quick cuts show just how hard it is to look into the eyes of a person whose life you may have destroyed, and the camera is always looking out for the other face just in the background that’s also affected by this confrontation.
Each performance too carries authenticity and pathos. No actor alienates his or her character. No one dominates the scene and wins out over the others. Even the children, either the adorable Hosseini or the innocent Sarina Farhadi, are given a proper burden to carry and become essential parts of this story.
Coming from Iran and being as wonderfully rich and complex as this screenplay is, “A Separation” seems to be a film without an equal. And yet its story feels so true and so relatable to anyone who has ever suffered through a divorce or been faced with an impossible decision. “A Separation” finds its equal in every story of heartbreak.