A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, 2011)

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.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    8th/03/2012 to 7:06 pm

    “In the end, Termeh is our proxy, choosing offscreen which parent she will live with. Without more emphasize on both of the parents throughout the film, however, I’m afraid that this audience-judge couldn’t make up my mind.”

    I definitely do not agree at all that the film was ever melodramtic or overwrought, and I think it is every bit the masterpiece that so many around the world have called it. The call this brilliantly written screenplay unwieldy, well just just say that I am on polar opposites on that point. Farhadi’s script wasn’t rehersed and never came off as “scripted” but rather as spontaneous and fully consistent with the way these characters would interact with each other in this society. And Termeh is a bright girl who in keeping with her plans would like to be seen as smooth to the judge.

    Razieh’s character was from the start one of uncertainty and contradiction. But with that disaster she married her home life would certain set the groundwork for other social failings. A SEPARATION is a searing drama, a story of marital discord, the unfair justice system and how laws are subject to human duplicity. The remarkably intense drama shows all the characters with flaws, takes no sides, and paves the way for audience sympathies to alternate. While the characters are morally compromised, they are never presented as black or white, but just working class people trying to survive. While the message here is a universal one, the film offers a fascinating look into Iranian society and patriarchal domination. and how even the judges seem to rate women as second-rate. While one can say the film wields cumulative dramatic power, it’s one that fascinates right down to the smallest details, and paints an Iran with the same kind of domestic issues faced by any other country. It’s that rare film where you are emotionally engaged with each character, and feel their individual plight. Farhadi suggests that it isn’t easy being honest, whether the resistence is noble enough, and that there is a vague line between integrity and dishonesty. Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi give superbly nuanced and deeply-felt performances, as does Shaheb Hosseini and Mahmoud Kalari’s camerwork is framed and textured exceptionally. A SEPARATION is one of the greatest films ever from Iran, and one that has resonated with so many around the world on the deepest emotional level.

    Note: Marilyn Ferdinand is a very good friend of mine. I did NOT come to FERDY-ON-FILMS to engineer some kind of a brawl, and an hour from now I will laugh at the disagreement. I’d say somewhere around 90% of the times I come here I find myself in agreement. But that won’t stop me from expressing myself when I reacted quite differently. I do understand that Marilyn feels this is a “good” film and never really implied otherwise, but I still feel with a film of A SEPARATION’s power and stature, it’s simply not enough. Still, at the end of the day it’s a disagreement on a movie. It’s means little in the general scheme.

  • Samuel Wilson spoke:
    8th/03/2012 to 7:12 pm

    Marilyn, thanks for a judicious review that raises worthwhile issues about the film. I’m not sure I agree that the film holds Simin relatively blameless, but that depends on whether you see more than bluster when Nader calls her a coward for wanting to leave and creating the original issue. I found Razieh less unconvincing as a hopeless foulup but I can see how she could be seen as a caricature — so could Hojjat — that compromises the film’s implicit class conflict. Each intelligent viewer seems to bring her own nuance to our outsiders’ perception of this fine film.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/03/2012 to 7:17 pm

    Sam – You don’t have to put a disclaimer on this. I’m happy to entertain disagreement. I just think this film was overstuffed, which diffused its power. For me, the masterpiece of 2011 was Good Bye, which could be a great companion piece with this since it discussed a woman trying to leave Iran. As she was a dissident, her attempt to leave was fraught with danger. I don’t know what might have faced Simin on her exit.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/03/2012 to 7:36 pm

    Sam W – I’ve seen a goodly number of Iranian films, so I can’t help but compare them. Close-up gave me a better look at the class conflict; Good Bye was a harrowing look at women wanting to leave; About Elly did a better job of examining lies and integrity. Calling Simin a coward is hot air if you read Reading Lolita in Tehran or watch The Circle or Persepolis. Not everyone will see this film the same way, as you say, as the well-versed Sam J. disagrees vehemently with me. I like this film, just felt a little let down by it.

  • Colin spoke:
    9th/03/2012 to 12:23 am

    I politely disagree, particularly in the labelling of Razieh. I suggest that she’s human, making mistakes we all make; a ditherer, perhaps, but that just made her character even more well-rounded. I never had the feeling that her actions were scripted. I agree with you on Simin’s maginalisation, but can’t see that that earns the film any demerits. For my money the best urban drama (along with Tyrannosaur) of 2011.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/03/2012 to 7:36 am

    Colin – Understood. BTW, I did not suggest Razieh’s actions seemed scripted. I feel that Razieh’s mistakes were enormous for one hired to be a caregiver, and the gap between what Nader asked her to do and what she actually did was so great that she must not have understood. Of course, pregnancy may have clouded her mind, but so many things she did made no sense that I just couldn’t get behind her character. Also, what about the money she supposedly stole? Subject raised and dropped like the plot device it is.

    As for Simin’s marginalization, the accusation that all the bad stuff happened because she left was just hanging there waiting to be dropped. I was interested in the title story, but it just never really materialized.

  • Pat spoke:
    9th/03/2012 to 8:44 am

    Marilyn –
    I’d concur with the other commenters here, in that I also found A SEPARATION to be a very fine film (probably the best of 2011) for all the reasons they’ve stated. However, I did enjoy reading your take, and I’ m particularly grateful for your recommendations on other Iranian fims. A SEPARATION was my first experience of Iranian cinemas and I’m particularly interested to see Farahdi’s earlier films, as well as the other titles you mention.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/03/2012 to 9:29 am

    Pat – I’m so clearly in the minority in seeing this as a bit lesser than other Iranian films I’ve viewed, but that’s fine. I enjoyed A Separation, just not quite as much as the other films I mentioned. I’m so glad my recommendations will be put to good use. I’d also recommend anything by Kiarostami, not just the one I mentioned, Jafar Panahi (especially Offside), and a fanciful film called The Day I Became a Woman. I still have so much to see myself.

  • Samuel Wilson spoke:
    9th/03/2012 to 11:24 am

    Marilyn, I just want to second most of your recommendations — I never meant to imply that the Oscar made Separation the Greatest Iranian Film. I like Panahi best of the Iranian directors and have liked what I’ve seen of Kiarostami as well.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/03/2012 to 11:55 am

    Sam W – I understand, and I don’t think anyone is meaning to imply that. I love Panahi, too, and find it interesting that he went from a very sweet children’s film The White Balloon to an angry enemy of the state. If I HAD to pick the greatest Iranian film, I might go with The Wind Will Carry Us by Kiarostami, who I think is the greatest Iranian director. But there are so many to choose from. Another director I like is Partovi, whose Border Cafe was a delight to see. He attended the screening and had some great things to offer.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    9th/03/2012 to 1:53 pm

    THW WIND WILL CARRY US as the greatest Iranian feature film?

    I completely agree Marilyn, though if we include shorts it would be THE HOUSE IS BLACK, a haunting piece about a leper colony directed by a woman, Forugh Farrokhzad in 1963.

    Kiarostami’s A TASTE OF CHERRY would certainly compete as would the one you name, THE WHITE BALLOON as well as a few more from both Panahi and Kiarostami.

    This weekend I may be seeing THIS IS A FILM, directed by Panahi, a film that is receiving spectacular notices.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    9th/03/2012 to 1:54 pm

    THIS IS NOT A FILM, that is…………LOL.

  • Jon spoke:
    9th/03/2012 to 8:43 pm

    I only wish I could join in the conversation, but I’m the last person it appears to have still not seen this film!!! How much longer must I wait?! Didn’t come to our area and still not on DVD. Errgh. Must be patient I guess.

  • esco20@gmail.com spoke:
    12th/03/2012 to 4:02 am

    You’re the first person besides me that I spoke to or read that noticed problems with the script. So nice not to feel alone! I viewed the the entire story of Raziah and her subsequent miscarriage as a subplot–albeit a compelling, powerful one revealing many of the movies themes, but a sub-plot nonetheless, which I thought would, in the end, be somehow linked to make an organic whole. Instead, in the end, it appeared to be a second, unrelated story to the separation of the lead characters. As if Mr. Farhadi.had run out of dramatic material on the separation and planned to divert us with a second unrelated story.
    But, as I was so impressed with the film overall, (and had no one else questioning the script), I let it slide. The script even with this diversion felt seamless. I was never less than 100% involved.
    The film’s triumph was it’s presentation ofreal people in all their complexity, bound up in their needs, pain and values, and how these all color their perceptions. Mr. Farhadi, like Renoir, shows us that everyone has his/her reasons. It was in this respect that I believe Mr. Farhadi was correct in not telling us how Termeh ultimately decided.
    As A.O. Scott eloquently put in NYT, 12/29/11: “It is a rigorously honest movie about the difficulties of being honest, a film that tries to be truthful about the slipperiness of truth,”

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/03/2012 to 11:55 am

    Esco – I’m not sure Razieh and her story were a diversion. The film is rather a conservative view of the nuclear family, which is why I think the censors largely left it alone. When the woman leaves to pursue her own happiness, it is calamity for her husband and child. Of course, the film doesn’t let it go at that, getting its digs at Iranian society in between the cracks the censors don’t normally understand.

  • Tony D'Ambra spoke:
    13th/03/2012 to 4:30 am

    Marilyn, I don’t see the feminist critique as having any particular relevance here. Simin is hardly a saint and certainly not a martyr. Rather she is selfish and even bourgeois. She has as much freedom as her husband. The care of the Nader’s father is a filial obligation. To deny the urgency of this obligation is a misunderstanding the narrative. The film is as much about class as gender. Razieh is uneducated and just as much oppressed by poverty as by her husband.

    I could say more, but Sam has said it for me and more eloquently than I ever could.

    The director as film-maker cum writer makes no judgments, and this is the film’s strength. The script is messy just like life is messy. To talk about melodrama is unfair and really not supported by a detached assessment.

    A brilliant reminder of what unites us all fully deserves the accolades it has garnered.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/03/2012 to 8:26 am

    Tony – With all due respect, to say that Simin has as much freedom as her husband is unfair as well, and inaccurate. Her interest is in her daughter, and gives up her freedom abroad to stay with her daughter. That’s hardly selfish. A messy script is not the same as a messy life.

  • Reza spoke:
    14th/03/2012 to 1:38 pm

    As an Iranian I just can say that this film depicts reality in Iran very well and the way our culture goes. So in that sense I disagree with some of your comments about exaggeration and unlikely events.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    14th/03/2012 to 1:43 pm

    Reza – I was not actually complaining that the film was exaggerated, only in the way the script treated some of the characters and “gotcha” moments.

  • Tony D'Ambra spoke:
    17th/03/2012 to 6:01 pm

    Marilyn, how is Simin less free than her husband? She can stay or leave home, or country, dress as she wishes, pursue a career as her friends do, and have equal standing before the law. “Messy” in the sense I was using the word referred to the nature of life not being definitive and they strength of the script is exactly this. To speak of “accuracy” is to belie the essence of cinema as an interpretive medium.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    17th/03/2012 to 6:17 pm

    She cannot dress as she pleases, nor does she have the right to do many things without the permission of her husband Read up on women’s rights in Iran before you sound the note of gender equality. As for the script being messy and messy life, they are not the same. If you don’t see it, then you don’t.

  • Tony D'Ambra spoke:
    17th/03/2012 to 9:27 pm

    What is in the frame matters – not what you think you know about Iran that matters. Simin’ s scarf is as much a cultural artifact as it religious, and wearing jeans is her choice. If you can’t give any depth to your assertions then don’t bother responding…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    17th/03/2012 to 9:44 pm

    Tony – If you can’t have a civil discussion that honors what I know, not dismiss it as being unimportant because the movie didn’t discuss it, then I have no interest in talking with you. Simin wanted a better life for her daughter, and that certainly puts the subject of gender inequality in the picture – you’re just too stubborn to admit it.

  • Kevyn Knox spoke:
    18th/03/2012 to 12:06 pm

    Tony – As with any well done film (and I suppose some of the not so well done as well) what is in the frame is not all that matters. When one watches a film about the holocaust, one is obviously influenced by their knowledge of the atrocities that took place, even when they are not shown on screen. With A Separation, one must bring their knowledge of the inequalities of how gender is treated in Iran to the film, even if it is not fully shown in the frame. If one is blind to what they are not shown – what is not spelled out in basic narrative language if you will – then one probably should not even be discussing a film such as A Separation.

  • Reza spoke:
    18th/03/2012 to 5:25 pm

    Marilyn and Kevyn – You are totally right about the gender inequalities in Iran, however, the perpetrator here is not Nader but the government/regime in power. Nader is as liberal and open-minded as a man in the West, which is part of the point the director wanted to make; that the middle class in Iran really isn’t that different from the one in the West, the difference lies in the environment they live in. In the film Nader does not at all come across as a woman-suppressor, but rather as a victim of the society that the ruling regime has created in the past 33 years, just like all the other characters in the movie.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/03/2012 to 6:58 pm

    Reza – I understand that completely, except that I don’t know if I think Nader is a victim. Maybe he’s like any man in the West, but it’s pretty clear he and Simin are having a lot of problems that have nothing to do with the regime. Yet the film kind of makes Simin the bad guy for forcing Nader to find a caretaker for his dad, which we can assume was her unwanted role. We can all relate to this story, and that is what makes the film so great. I really didn’t need all the courtroom drama, which pushed it over the top.

  • Akmal spoke:
    8th/12/2013 to 8:54 am

    I have been living in Iran for the last 20 years. What I have come to know is surprising different from most people in other countries. Unlike peaple in the west Iranian people know their issues well. Even women are aware of their intimate legal rights. Whie men are knowing their duties much more than anyone in any other country. To understand their concencept we need to know their culture and practices.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/12/2013 to 9:02 am

    Akmal, thanks for stopping by. I am sure Iranian women know their right intimately, and there are many things I don’t know about Iran. I do, however, stand by my review.

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