A compelling film with familiar themes.
It is very rare to come across a film as smart as A Separation. The Iranian film from director Asghar Farhadi has earned great acclaim winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year. While A Separation does not offer much in way of thematic content, its twisting and compelling plot make it an incredible film.
Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), who have been married for fourteen years are on the verge of divorce. Simin wants to move out of Iran to provide her daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), better opportunities. Nader has no objection to moving out of Iran, but has to take care of his Alzheimer’s afflicted father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi).
This plot only provides the context for what follows. When Simin leaves to live with her mother, Nader must hire someone to watch his father while he works. On Simin’s recommendation, he hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat). Struggling to balance her religious duties with her new job, Razieh finds herself put in a morally conflicted position that only becomes more complicated as the film descends into nearly never-ending conflict.
Farhadi gives the viewer enough material to make their own deductions as to what happens in the story, but at the same point, there is always room for doubt. As characters try to sort out the events surrounding Razieh and Nader, conversations between characters reveal secrets that continually escape into another’s ears. Determining who knows what provides just as much doubt as trying to figure out who is guilty under the law. There are only a few mistakes: a subplot involving a missing sum of money, and the fact that Sarina Farhadi looks way too old to be only eleven.
A Separation paints a picture of an environment where doubt is the greatest enemy. For a character to have doubt that they know something is akin to it being wrong, there is no room for an internal epistemological dialogue—either something is true or it is not. This theme is not one that is completely new: Doubt and Higher Ground have tread these waters before, but American critics will give A Separation more credit for presenting this kind of epistemological crisis in the context of another religion and culture.
That is not to say that the film is any less real or heartfelt, but it is to say that thematically A Separation is not unique. There are a handful of heartbreaking scenes focused around Termeh struggling to realize her parents are not perfect that is reminiscent of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.
There is a strange binary set up within A Separation where characters from non-middle class backgrounds subscribe to a more conservative version of Islam. Simin and Nader representing a middle-class Iranian family are liberalized. Razieh, who comes from a lower class background, struggles with application of the law in her life and calls help lines to assuage her fear of sinning. This idea raises many interesting questions, but they are not ones that this writer has any right to comment on.
This is a really important film for Iran but also for Western audiences, it expresses the fact that the people there have their own problems and struggles that are not focused upon anything remotely political. For people who may have been subjected to the absolute evil that is the 24 hour spin cycle of Fox News, this film is a healthy shot of reality. However, for anyone whose brain has not been turned in a pile of decomposing muck, this film raises interesting and compelling questions about religion, politics, and life.
A Separation does not offer much in the way of treading new ground thematically. It does, however, have a compelling narrative that weaves itself around the lives of its characters and disassembles them in interesting and unexpected ways.