Some films are so rich in characterization and plot that it’s impossible to view them analytically the first time around. Such is the case with A Separation, a movie that immerses the viewer so completely in the experiences of its characters that you may forget you’re watching a movie.
Winner of Best Foreign Film at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars this year, the film by writer/director Asghar Farhadi centers on an Iranian family consisting of Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi — real-life daughter of Farhadi) and Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a pregnant, morally conflicted caregiver for Nader’s father. Nader and Simin are first introduced sitting in divorce court; they’re still together at this point, but only due to the framing of the camera. The two remain in love, but Simin is pushing for divorce because she wants to live abroad and can find no other way, while Nader feels obligated to see that his Alzheimer-stricken father is taken care of. The judge rules that this is not a reason for divorce.
Simin moves to her mother’s place, prompting Nader to hire Razieh to attend to his father during the day. Razieh expresses guilt for taking the job, seeing as she’s a married woman dedicated to her religion working in the home of a single man. Though A Separation delves into Islamic religious values, with mention of sin and the Qur’an, Farhadi’s film will not overwhelm Western audiences with potentially unfamiliar material and works as more than just a glimpse of life in Tehran. The plot unfolds in a way that allows viewers from many cultures to relate.
Nader comes home one day to find his father alone, face down on the floor and tied to the bedpost. Razieh returns to the house claiming to have good reason for leaving, though Nader and the viewer are left in the dark as to what it is. (You’ll figure it out.) Naturally, though, the situation angers Nader (an emotion he doesn’t often express), who forces a pleading-innocent Razieh out of his house. Razieh soon has a miscarriage and blames Nader’s physical aggressiveness during their fight as the cause. The small courtroom in which we first saw Nader and Simin becomes the arena for the former to prove his innocence.
Woven throughout the story is a big decision Termeh must make should her parents agree to divorce, as it’s the child who is ultimately the one experiencing the brunt of all the disruption to her everyday life. Farhadi makes certain we don’t lose sight of the decision’s importance.
Farhadi presents an unbiased perspective on his characters and leaves it to the audience to decide who to side with. By film’s end, though, there isn’t a single character who doesn’t draw empathy from the viewer. The cast facilitates this by portraying their respective characters with the complexities and faults of real people dealing with an unprecedented situation. The decision made by the court won’t solve anything; nobody is going to win.
A Separation defies many of the conventions of big Hollywood filmmaking (there’s no special effects, music is excluded from the film until the last shot, etc.), a strategy that works because of the strength of the underlying narrative. Farhadi’s reserved hand is exactly what was needed to make A Separation the mesmerizing film that it is. It’s so engrossing I even forgot I was reading subtitles.