A Separation

Spoiler-free Film Review!

By: Asghar Farhadi

When: 2011

Interesting and random fact: The Iranian government refused permission to shoot A Separation until poor Mr. Farhadi apologized for a speech in support of liberal filmmakers he’d given earlier.

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This is one of the best-reviewed Persian films of all time.

There are some things, I believe, that are eternal in human society. I’ve been putting watching this off for too long, but I’m glad I did, though it’s kept me up till midnight on a Saturday. A Separation is one of the few films I’ve watched that manages to satisfactorily explore all of them, and while staying on the right side of Iranian censors to boot. It’s a masterpiece: culturally, socially, and dramatically complex, keeping up a quick pace throughout, and constantly reinventing the narrative to explore ideas of morality and honour.

What is eternal in human society? The first is inequality; the second is religion, the third is emotional suffering. How can all three be explored? Farhadi’s solution is to use a painfully normal scenario: a divorce, and the chaos that engulfs two families in its aftermath.

I’ve recently been reading on post-revolution Iran and have been quite interested to see how similar the Iranian middle class is to our own. They are pretty broadly secular, and their conformity to religious/cultural norms is limited to wearing a headscarf in public, just about. They’re cosmopolitan, well-educated, and, just like us, they don’t really seem to see the lower classes as completely human (though I must point out that at least they let their domestic help sit on their chairs – middle-class families in India don’t even do that, to say nothing of the upper class).

A Separation is the story of just such a family. Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi play Simin and Nader, a teacher and a banker going through a divorce. Simin wishes to take their daughter and settle abroad; Nader refuses to abandon his father, an Alzheimer’s patient. Simin asks for a divorce and moves to her mother’s. Nader hires a caregiver for his father, a devout woman from a poor background.

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The tragedy of Alzheimer’s is an unspoken theme.

Tragedy ensues. Nothing so crass as an affair, I assure you.

The film is shot almost documentary-style, with an imperfect, wobbly camera that draws you deeper and deeper into the tragedy. At no point do you feel that you’re not in the film, feeling the family’s pain, puzzling over the morality of their actions. The illusion is potent – I left the film exhausted. The performances are beyond believable – you’re not watching actors in a role, you’re watching a family tear itself apart. It hits hard.

 

“.. You’re watching a family tear itself apart. It hits hard.”

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That’s the judge speaking, a proxy for the audience, almost.

There’s no happy ending, just like in real life. People have irreconcilable differences, things that would appear ridiculous (as the first judge they visit tells the protagonists) but are merely scapegoats for simmering resentments. Simin isn’t asking for a divorce because she wants to go abroad, she’s asking because she’s hurt that Nader is willing to let go of a life they’ve built together for fourteen years without even trying to ask her to stay. And their daughter is the one who must pay the price for their pride, even as each family in the film pays a price for the mens’ outdated ideas of “honour”.

Farhadi makes interesting use of space and lighting. The “separation” of Simin and Nader is metaphorically as well as literally represented through their dialogue, screens and doors; the grungy, confused bus commute of Razieh (the domestic help) and her little daughter is contrasted with Nader’s driving around a sedan with his invalid father in tow.

As a social commentary, the contrast I outlined between prosperous, secular Iran and poor, religious Iran is prevalent throughout. Gender inequality is stark in the lower classes, and negligible in the upper. A few scenes highlight the dichotomy – the middle class seems to care not a fig about something as sacred as swearing on the Qur’an, but Razieh calls a preacher to confirm that it’s morally acceptable to take a job where she would be required to undress a helpless old gentleman. Her husband, later in the film, addresses Nader and Simin in terms that I’m sure every proletarian has ever wanted to scream at the bourgeois. And the difficulty they face in trying to get justice for what happens, against a richer man – whether or not anyone was morally responsible – is palpable.

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What is the message that the film is trying to convey? This, I think, is it. Justice is an illusion. That’s the disturbing truth behind all the culture and religion we hide behind. The only thing permanent is pain, whether it’s 21st century Iran or another other time and place. In our quest to be whole, we are more alone than ever.

“Justice is an illusion.”

Verdict: A tragic family drama; a shrewd social commentary; a thriller par excellence. Must watch!

 

 

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