January 20, 2012
Reviewed by Marc Glassman
It’s hard for foreign language films to generate a buzz but this Iranian drama has succeeded in attracting worldwide attention. Winning the Golden Globe last week has made North America’s major media outlets finally sit up and take notice of A Separation. The film is short-listed (down to nine!) for the Oscar and it would be a shock if it didn’t make the final five run off to the Academy Awards.
Cineastes have been extolling the virtues of A Separation for nearly a year since it won The Golden Bear for best film and Silver Bears for Best Actor and Actress at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival.
Courtroom drama; family melodrama; mystery
Simin and Nader’s marriage has fallen apart after fourteen years. As the film begins, they’re talking to a judge about their separation. Simin wants to leave Iran with Termeh, their eleven-year-old daughter and is willing to remain married to Nader if he goes with them, but he insists on staying in Iran to take care of his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. The judge refuses to grant a divorce to Simin so she chooses to separate from the family and move back with her parents.
Ambivalent about the situation and deeply concerned for her daughter, Simin arranges to have Nader hire Razieh as a housekeeper. Trouble occurs on the first day. Razieh has not arranged for her husband, the easy-to-anger Houjat to endorse the job—a traditional requirement for a woman who is a devout Muslim. Adding to her upset is the sad condition of Nader’s father, who is incontinent and barely functional.
After the first day, Razieh persuades Nader to interview Houjat for the job without telling him that she’s already worked there for a day. Nader hires Houjat but before he can come to work, the deeply indebted man is sent to prison by his creditors.
Desperate, Razieh returns to work and later that day has to rush through the streets to find Nader’s father, who has wandered off unattended. The day after, Nader and his daughter Termeh return home in the afternoon to find the Razieh gone and the old man unconscious, on the floor, with one hand tied to the bed.
Razieh returns and a heated quarrel takes place between her and Nader. She is pushed out of the apartment and is discovered by neighbours having apparently fallen down steps. Later that day, Razieh has a miscarriage and Nader is charged with murder.
Over the course of the next few days, legal and ethical battles ensue. Nader charges Razieh with brutalizing his hapless father. The bad tempered Houjat angers the judge and other people with his bullying manners. Eventually, Simin intervenes and tries to work out a solution that will keep everyone out of jail and somewhat satisfied.
Through all of the various plot machinations, questions of truth and responsibility are debated. Did Nader know that Razieh was pregnant? Should Razieh have told her Houjat about the job? Was she wrong in her treatment of Nader’s father?
A Separation answers most of those questions but leaves a larger one in abeyance: should Termeh, the most likeable character in the drama leave with Simin, her mother or stay with her father, Nader?
A wonderful ensemble cast plays their roles beautifully. Leila Hatami as the sophisticated, intelligent Simin and Peyman Moaadi as the deeply conflicted Nader highlight the acting.
Asghar Farhadi directs in what now seems to be the classic Iranian style: apparently neo-realistic and unassuming, with a semi-documentary look that you gradually realize has been brilliantly crafted to appear to be “real.” Farhadi’s script is a model of observation, slowly building up his story to the point where you can see the differing and often tragic perspectives of each of the main characters.
This is a great film. Bold—well not that bold!—prediction: A Separation will win the Best Foreign Film Oscar next month. Deservedly.