REVIEW: Unvarnished Iranian Family Drama A Separation Doesn't Go for Easy Answers
The filmmaking in Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's A Separation is so spare and unfussy that, save for the occasional camera jiggle, you're barely aware of the filmmaking at all. This is a drama about two families -- one deeply religious, one not -- who clash over an escalating series of misunderstandings, and the emotion Farhadi teases out of this increasingly complex situation are unvarnished but restrained. Nothing earth-shattering happens in A Separation, but the straightforwardness of this view of a disintegrating marriage, set in the context of complicated cultural and religious morés, is dramatic by itself.
The movie opens with a couple, Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Maadi), appearing before a judge to hear Simin's petition for divorce. The couple have been planning to leave Iran with their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). But Nader calls off the move at the last minute, realizing he can't leave his ailing father behind. Simin wants to, and is willing to, leave without him, to build a better life for her daughter. The judge -- whom we can hear but not see -- stops her to ask archly if she thinks her daughter won't be able to have a good life in Iran. He also suggests that he can't grant her a divorce unless she can prove Nader is a genuinely bad husband -- if, for example, he's an addict, or he beats her, or he fails to give her an allowance. Simin is quick to assert that Nader is a good person, and you can guess the verdict the judge is about to come out with: If Simin really wants what's best for her daughter, she must stay in Iran with her husband.
But if that sounds like a personal -- or even a social -- victory for Nader, the male head of his household, it isn't. Farhadi has made a somewhat old-fashioned melodrama. Simin does leave Nader and Termeh, but she doesn't leave the country: She packs her things and goes to live with her mother. The complication pile-up begins when Nader hires a 30-ish woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who happens to be pregnant, to care for his father; in other words, Razieh will assume the duties that Simin, clearly a devoted daughter-in-law, used to perform. Razieh arrives the next day to care for the old man, with her young daughter (Kimia Hosseini) in tow, but the job appears to be too much for her. We also see that she's deeply, conservatively religious, and it's suggested, for reasons that become clear later, that she has reason to fear the wrath of her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini).
This is Farhadi's fifth picture -- his previous movie, About Elly, won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2009 -- and he doesn't always have full control over his wayward, tangled storyline. Significant unseen events are explained, after the fact, by mere lines of dialogue; there's perhaps too much telling here and not enough showing. But without making an overt statement about the political, social and religious climate in Iran, Farhadi -- who also wrote the script -- packs a lot of quiet anger and frustration into the picture. Like his compatriot Jafar Panahi, Farhadi is attuned to the plight of women in Iran, the way their needs and desires are subjugated to those of their husbands. But he shows how this system fails men, too: Nader becomes charged with a crime that, it seems, he didn't knowingly commit -- in any event, his "knowing" is difficult to prove. And even though his wife has been instructed to stay with him, it's impossible to legislate a human being's love. As far as his marriage goes, the law may rule in Nader's favor, but it can't bring him happiness, and his misery -- even as it's veiled by his more obvious machismo -- is clear every minute. The performances here, particularly those of Hatami and Maadi, are subtle and quietly heartfelt. These characters intend to do the right thing despite their own deep, personal pain, but they're highly imperfect beings struggling to live in an even more imperfect world. A Separation doesn't try to make easy sense of that world, or of this family's suffering. It's simply a quiet cry of anguish.