Iran’s contribution to this year’s Academy Awards A Separation is an astonishing study in grey. There are no absolutes in this…well, I guess it would be technically correct to call it a murder-mystery/courtroom drama. Though that kind of calls to mind men in suits giving dramatic speeches and fevered chases from shadowy figures down seedy alleys. And that is not this film. It’s more like a drama of errors, how simple mistakes and the telling of “your side” of the story can gradually and gracefully shatter families. This isn’t the explosive tearing apart either — it’s seismic forces and plate tectonics forcing things asunder slowly. But the pacing isn’t glacial, rather methodical. Every character in the film is at moments sympathetic and infuriating. It’s something that could be easily solved if one person would just give in and admit that they were in the wrong. And it’s not necessarily one single person either, but any of the characters over the course of the film. Writer-director Aghdar Farhadi steeps his story in Iranian culture, using religious tenets and Iranian legal practice to weave this fascinating tale of a people just trying to do what they feel is the right thing and how that kicks them right in the face. A Separation is virtually flawless, with remarkable performances and deft storytelling.
It all starts with a divorce. In Iran, legal matters are discussed in a small room, sitting in chairs across from a robeless judge dressed up like a DMV clerk, where petitioners plead their case. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to divorce her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi). Well, not really, but kind of. Basically, Simin wants to leave Iran with their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter) so that she can have better opportunities, but Nader refuses to leave because he wants to care for his aging father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Nader says she’s free to go, and he won’t stop them, but Termeh wants to stay with her father in Iran. They both love each other, and want the best for their daughter. And so the judge throws out the case and refuses to give Simin legal permission to just take their daughter abroad. Where abroad is never specified, though Termeh is learning English from a tutor.
And so they separate. Simin says she’s leaving — though Nader knows she’ll never go through with it and Termeh secretly knows her mother is simply going to live with her parents. Because Simin is leaving, Nader must make arrangements to have someone watch his father during the day. Simin knows a woman whose sister-in-law needs work, and so Nader offers to hire Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devoutly religious woman who shows up in full chador and burka with her tiny daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) in tow. The arrangement is for Razieh to watch Nader’s father during the days, make sure he doesn’t wander or get himself hurt, until Nader can pick up Termeh from school and return to take over duties.
Nader’s father turns out to be in a far more advanced state of Alzheimer’s than first believed, and he accidentally soils himself. Razieh wasn’t expected to care for him like a nurse, and she is confused as to whether or not it would be a violation of her religious beliefs to bathe and change a strange old man. Her religious advisor tells her it would not be a sin, and so she changes Nader’s father. To further compound matters, Razieh is pregnant, though with her chador covering and modest manner, this is not readily apparent. When Nader arrives, Razieh tells him she will no longer be able to care for his father. She offers to get her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), an out-of-work cobbler, to care for the old man, but Nader must not let him know that she has been working there, because she has been doing the work secretly. Nader meets with Hodjat and offers him the job, and he accepts. Everything seems to be in order.
Then Razieh shows up for work the next day in the place of her husband. Hodjat was sent to prison by his creditors for failure to pay debts. Razieh seems out of her element: the old man has somehow escaped and headed down the street to get a paper, her daughter has spilled garbage on the stairs and she has to mop the stairs, and she is forced to occasionally change a sick old man. Nader returns early one day to find his father tied by one arm to the bed, collapsed on the floor of his sickroom. He manages to get him to respond and is trying to settle him when Razieh returns with Somayeh. Nader confronts her, with this and with some missing money, and asks her to leave. Razieh wants her pay, but Nader told her she got her money when she stole. He grasps her by the chador with two fingers and edges her out the door. Then he must go tend to his father, who has collapsed in the bathroom and is blocking the door. It’s at this moment that Razieh comes back into the apartment to plead her case and defend herself from the allegations of stealing. Furious, Nader pushes her by the arm out the door. There’s a commotion outside, and Nader goes to check. Razieh is picking herself up off the floor, clutching her back, as the neighbors look on. She makes her way out of the apartment. Nader gets the phone call later from Simin — Razieh is in the hospital because she suffered a miscarriage.
And that, my friends, is merely the beginning. If it seems complicated, it’s not. It’s just intricately layered — and even gets moreso. Nader is brought up on charges by Razieh and Hodjat for the death of their baby — which under Iranian law counts as murder since the child was 19 weeks old. Nader professes that he didn’t realize she was pregnant. In exchange, Nader makes a complaint against Razieh for the injuries to his father. From here, things get even more insane, with different sides of the story, and the pride of the two males causing insane amounts of friction. While it sounds like I’m giving away the whole shebang, I assure you, much like the Yeti’s post-prom date, you’re just getting the tip of the iceberg.
Farhadi brilliantly blends devout religious belief with Iranian culture and responsibility. Of particular interest in the chemistry is Hodjat, a hotheaded out of work laborer prone to fits of rage and threats. If it were simply seemingly irrevocable plot threads being unravelled to come to a clean conclusion, A Separation wouldn’t even come close to being the outstanding story. It’s because everything comes so close to being resolved only to fall apart again — over and over — that the film is resoundingly and maddeningly amazing. Much like real life nothing is black and white, and we are constantly changing allegiances and throwing up our hands in total and complete frustration. It’s rare for a foreign film to get buzz for best screenplay, but this is the film to do it. And it pulls off all this tension and drama without resorting to cheap theatrics.