A man and a woman sit before a judge discussing the dissolution of their marriage. Simin wants to move out of the country with her husband and daughter in tow, but Nader refuses as he needs to stay and care for his ill and elderly father. She can go, he says, but she cannot take their daughter. The judge agrees, and the two are dismissed back to the turmoil of their private lives.
This simple setup could be the start of any number of familiar dramas in most countries around the globe, but Simin and Nader are a modern day Iranian couple which puts an unusual and rarely seen spin on the story that follows. What starts as a straight forward tale of one couple’s split becomes an exploration into the many divisions in their life. The separation between them is simply the first step into the gap between parent and child, male and female, right and wrong, and truth and fiction.
A Separation is a mesmerizing journey into the everyday, but it’s an everyday that has remained foreign to much of the Western world.
Nader (Peyman Maadi) is forced to seek outside help with watching his daughter and father while he’s away at work, but a woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayet) unexpectedly reports the next morning. Her husband was unavailable, but because they need the money she has come in his place unbeknownst to him. Her secret is due to the strict religious and cultural rules that forbid a woman from being alone with a man who isn’t her family, and that situation is stressed even further when Nader’s father wets himself and Razieh reluctantly helps to bathe him.
The turning point comes when Nader returns from work to find his father tied to the bed in a precarious position and Razieh is nowhere to be found. She returns shortly thereafter and the two engage in a fight of words, accusations and possibly a shove that sends her falling down the stairs.
What follows is a he said/she said situation where both parties play fast and loose with the facts for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the old man in the bed. Tensions and charges escalate to a point where the law is once again invited into their lives, but this time the outcome in the court of public and social opinion may be the more punishing and damning one.
Writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s previous film, About Elly, offered a surprising, suspenseful and exhilarating look at a disappearance in modern day Iran, and he repeats that success with A Separation. The mystery here is of a far more domestic nature, but the drama that flows from it is equally engrossing and captivating. Farhadi’s style is direct and without much in the way of excessive flourishes, but it holds the attention masterfully all the same. If I recall correctly this film doesn’t even feature a score to inform the audience when and how to feel and react.
Instead it’s all in the performances of the three leads. Maadi commands the screen as a respectable man feeling pressure on all sides but who never wavers in his love for his daughter and father. He’s a good man in a bad situation, and it’s complicated by the ways and mores of Iranian culture. Bayet’s turn as the possibly wronged woman is equally strong as she embodies both victim and subtle manipulator for reasons of her own. And Leila Hatami brings conviction and doubt to the role of Simin as she’s tasked with taking sides between the man she still loves who’s currently preventing her from taking their daughter and a fellow woman he may have wronged.
As stated above, the core of the story could play out anywhere, but the nuances and distinctions brought to it by way of its Iranian setting add layers that would never be found in a Hollywood rendition. The lines between the sexes are far less blurred than we’re used to while the separation between right and wrong becomes far murkier when clouded by the customs and beliefs of a modern day non secular society. There are surprising twists and turns to be found here, but the film is far more of a character piece than a mystery.
This is not the Iran that the nightly news has turned into a land of evil and inhumanity. These characters are people who love and feel anger and regret. They’re simultaneously familiar and new, and their experiences are entertaining, educational and ultimately eye opening. And if it takes the power of cinema to lessen the separation between our culture and theirs that can only be a good thing.