Director/Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Today is International Women’s Day, and to “celebrate” the single day the estimated 3.2 billion women of the world accept to highlight whatever this vaguely defined day means to them, I’m going to focus on a country where women must navigate the capricious whims of men whose permission they need for everything from getting a job to getting a divorce—Iran.
A Separation, lauded with nearly 50 awards the world over, comes from the gifted director/screenwriter Asghar Farhadi. I was an enormous fan of his 2009 film About Elly, which similarly focuses on how misfortune brings out the worst in people, and indirectly, how the restricted status of women encourages them to lie to get what they want. While About Elly looked at well-off Tehraners on vacation, this time, Farhadi goes full force into their complicated lives at home and reveals the universal oppression of economic insecurity and laws that turn all—men, women, and children—into liars. While A Separation discusses many particularly Iranian problems, the universality of the predicaments it poses must certainly factor into its worldwide acclaim.
The film opens in a courtroom where Simin (Leila Hatami) is petitioning to divorce Nader (Peyman Moadi, also seen in About Elly). When the unseen judge, by camera placement sitting in the same place as the audience, asks if Nader is cruel to Simin, she replies “no, he’s a good man.” Her reason for seeking a divorce is that their visas to emigrate will expire in 40 days, and he has changed his mind. Nader insists he can’t leave his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who has Alzheimer’s, while Simin says the old man doesn’t even know who Nader is. Simin is adamant about leaving because she wants a better future for their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter). When the judge asks what’s wrong with the future Termeh will have in Iran, Simin looks away and says nothing.
Viewers who know about the restrictions on women in Iran will see Simin’s point. However, Nader’s wish to look after his impaired father also has our sympathy. On a symbolic level, one could see this situation as the sacrifice of young women to oppressive old men who don’t even recognize what they have done to their nearest and dearest. But we don’t have to get too symbolic to see the Nader and Simin have been at odds for some time, with Nader’s rigid pride and selfishness an impediment to understanding and sympathizing with the pain of his wife and daughter.
This seeing but not seeing becomes crucial to the story when Nader is accused of murder by causing Razieh (Sareh Bayat), the woman he hires to look after his father when Simin moves out, to miscarry her 19-week-old fetus, a full human in the eyes of the law. Nader, upset when he found his father alone and on the floor twisted in some ties Razieh used to tie him to the bed when she had to leave, accused Razieh of stealing some money and pushed her out of his apartment, causing her to fall. His defense hinges on whether he knew she was pregnant. It’s ironically amusing that Razieh’s hot-headed husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini, also from About Elly) questions how Nader could fail to notice his wife’s pregnancy when the entire purpose of the concealing clothing Iranian women must wear is to make their bodies invisible to men.
While A Separation makes subtle political points with such details, the larger issues of lying and personal responsibility are the main event here. Termeh, an innocent as yet to the uses of deception, repeatedly questions her father about what she knows to be lies. He must spell it out in large letters that he has to lie to stay out of prison, and he is clear that his concern is more for her and his father than for himself. He has already written Simin out of their lives, so this concern seems genuine to me, yet in this sense, he continues to fail to see Simin. He also fails to see the pain Termeh is in over their separation, and becomes more concerned about proving his innocence than recognizing the potential danger Termeh is in from an unstable, self-righteous Hojjat.
Hojjat is another individual who has taken his eye off the ball. Prolonged unemployment and the failure of the government to legitimize his grievance with his former employer have made him clinically depressed, and so his distractedness is more understandable. Razieh takes a job without his permission out of necessity, compromising her religious beliefs but preserving his dignity with her deception. When he asks her to lie again in a more important way, however, she refuses. Both Razieh and Simin draw lines that are very hurtful to them and those they love. More cynically, Nader and Hojjat consider that desperate times call for desperate measures. Their losses (a potential son, a marriage) seem more like opportunities for outrage and redress than emotional trials. I hasten to add that no one in the film is unsympathetic, and only Simin seems relatively blameless, at least during the events of the film. By setting up the film visually to make the audience both judges and witnesses, we are implicitly asked to put this social order on trial.
A Separation is a good film. Like most Iranian films, this one makes exceptional use of its locations, and the handheld camera work by Mamoud Kalari provides a compelling immediacy and framing that teems with the chaotic life of the principal characters. Applause go to Hayedeh Safiyari as well for film editing that builds tension with judicious edits or the wise use of long takes, such as the one that ends the film.
However, A Separation is not the first-rate film I was hoping for. The plot is unwieldy, and too full of melodramatic reveals that undermine a more complex assessment of the dilemmas these two families face. The character of Razieh is particularly problematic. She’s basically a simple-minded disaster, avoiding her charge to watch Nader’s father and spending her time leaving the apartment to empty the trash and run other errands. Her failure to tell the truth makes sense in some situations and no sense in others. A lot of the plot of the film revolves around her, so her character needed to be more strongly drawn than it was. Termeh has enough maturity and intelligence to go to bat for her father, but her unrehearsed lie to the judge is so smooth that it comes off as scripted. Simin, well realized by the fine performance of Hatami, is pushed mainly to the periphery of the film, letting some of the air out of the interesting dynamic the film sets up initially. Hatami is the anchor of this film, keeping some of the more melodramatic moments grounded. When she is not in similar scenes, the film becomes overwought.
In the end, Termeh is our proxy, choosing offscreen which parent she will live with. Without more emphasis on both of the parents throughout the film, however, I’m afraid that this audience-judge couldn’t make up my mind.