A Separation Review by Donna Honarpisheh
Review of: A Separation. (Jodayi Nader az Simin)Reviewed by: Donna Honarpisheh Written, produced and directed by Asghar Farhadi. In Persian, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes. Opened: December 30, 2011 On DVD: August 21, 2012 WITH: Leila Hatami (Simin), Peyman Moadi (Nader), Shahab Hosseini (Hodjat), Sareh Bayat (Razieh), Sarina Farhadi (Termeh), and Ali-Asghar Shahbazi (Nader’s Father)
Rethinking Morality and Conflict through Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation”
It’s been almost a year since Iranian director, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (Jodayi-eh Nader az Simin) was released in the U.S and audiences are still talking about it. In addition to the general public the film was formally rewarded, both here and abroad, at a long list of cinema venues including: the Fajr Film Festival (Tehran); the Berlin International Film Festival; the Golden Globe, and of course the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. This level of success, a rarity particularly when it concerns "foreign films," can be attributed to several unique aspects of the film. It is distinguished by its ability to cross boundaries not only in cinema, but also in art, politics, religion, and humanity.
A Separation is a remarkable film for a myriad of reasons but what stands out most about this Iranian drama is its authenticity, humanity, and complex sense of moral behavior. Unlike most Hollywood films filled with flashy filmmaking and scenes used solely for the purpose of aesthetic shock factor, Farhadi does not need technological gimmickry, but instead uses solid storytelling to captivate his audiences. With a pace similar to that of Hitchcock’s, A Separation is composed of a tightly woven plot and is structured in a way that takes everyday occurrences, and shows the moral struggle, conflict, and complexity therein. This is not an uncommon practice for director Farhadi who uses similar techniques and themes in his other works. In his earlier film, About Elly (Dar Barayeh Elly, 2009) what begins as a simple weekend vacation intended for lighthearted fun unexpectedly spins into multilayered tragedy. (Finding cinematic beauty in life’s details is a common theme in other Iranian directors’ work including Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf). It is for this reason that many people identify with his films. A Separation is a powerful film in that it is not only a story about Nader and Simin; it is a story of class struggle, family values, and the power of religion.
WARNING: Spoilers Ahead! The film begins with a strong opening scene composed of a single long take that reels viewers in within the first five minutes. This segment shows husband and wife, Nader and Simin sitting in front of a judge while she requests a divorce. Simin, who has obtained a visa for the family to emigrate, is distraught because Nader is no longer willing to accompany her. When the judge asks why she is so eager to leave, Simin says the line that seems to have struck Western critics the most: “I’d rather she (Termeh, Nader and Simin’s daughter) didn’t grow up under these circumstances.” “What circumstances?” the judge inquires inquisitively.
If I may for a moment review the reviewers, to say that this sentiment is at the core of Farhadi’s film is to simplify the multi-layered plot that soon unfolds. In fact we are surprised to find out that the plot doesn’t turn out to be about Simin’s “independence” and “struggle” to leave Iran. Nader has been a good husband to her, a point she readily makes herself, but Simin says they had plans to take their daughter abroad and Nader says he is unable leave because he must take care of his father with Alzheimer’s. In response to this, Simin asks: “Does he even realize you are his son?” Nader passionately responds: “I know he is my father!” Farhadi arranges the story of Nader and Simin as if it were a row of dominoes. Nader’s passion for his father and evidently strong sense of morality is a part of the energy that catalyses the movement of each piece. The first domino to fall is the couple’s marriage. At a standstill, the judge denies Simin’s request for divorce and we realize Farhadi has much more in store for us than the conventional narrative we have grown to “expect” about Iran.
The ambiguity of the opening scene is however, a condition that stays with us through the entirety of the film. Ironically, while Simin and Nader make their appeals facing a judge (the camera, and the audience) at the beginning of the film, Farhadi’s lens refuses to judge his characters for their actions even when the camera turns to a more subjective point of view.. The camera blurs the lines between right and wrong, creating a gray area in which we cannot vilify any one character. It allows us to identify with all of the characters at different points in the plot and for different reasons.
As the film proceeds, Simin decides to move into her parent’s house until a resolution is reached regarding the family’s disagreements while Termeh continues to stay with her father. Needing a new caretaker Nader hires a poor young woman named Razieh to help care for his father. Razieh, pregnant and always accompanied by her daughter, embodies the films social mathematics: add a person and the possibilities for misunderstanding and conflict multiplies exponentially. This is even before factoring in her husband (Hodjat) who is unemployed, in deep debt, is unaware that she has taken the job—and would not approve. What is so unique about Farhadi’s use of the domino affect is that so often the moments of impetus are simple or routine. For instance, Razieh’s daughter takes the bag of trash down the stairs to throw it away, leaves the door open, Nader’s father walks out of the door, which then leads to Razieh who runs out into the street to find him and gets in an accident. All of these actions seem insignificant but these minute details are cogs in a masterfully designed plot. Nader is angered by Razieh’s seemingly neglectful care of his father. As audience members we are torn because we cannot bear the image of Nader’s father helplessly falling on the ground but we also resist placing the blame on poor Razieh. The tense confrontation between Nader and Razieh sets the tone for which “A Separation” manifests itself across various themes including observant/non-observant, middle class/working class, insiders/outsiders, and audience/character. By presenting most of the scene behind a matted window in which things are unclear, Farhadi shows us enough so that we can see that something happened, but he does not show us all of it. What happened behind the window? Who is at fault? Everybody and Nobody. Farhadi introduces an ambiguity in the actions of the characters that becomes central to the film. He presents us with characters that are separated by their moral outlooks on life but cannot avoid dealing with each other.
At this point, “A Separation” evolves into a gripping mystery, battling between the he said she said of both families’ stories to discover the elusive truth. Even in discovering the truth, Farhadi clings to the importance of detail. Had we known that even conversations in the backdrop would contribute to the culmination of events we would have paid more attention to the question of whether Nader heard Razieh tell Termeh’s teacher of her pregnancy. Nader explains to Termeh that with the law you are either guilty, or not guilty, there is no gray area; a rule he must struggle with within the plot but is exempted from within Farhadi’s lens.
Another layer of the film is that the conflict between the families is also a conflict of class. Nader and Simin represent a middle class family, and Razieh and Hodjat as the working-class family. If we had any doubts about Farhadi’s intended depiction of divided classes, it is made clear in the scene in which Termeh recites a passage of history schoolwork with her grandmother at the courthouse: “During the Sassanid period, people were divided into two classes, the royalty, the upper class and the normal people.” Her grandmother interjects: “The regular people.”
Throughout the family battle, Hodjat serves as the voice of the working class. When suspected of causing his wife’s miscarriage, Hodjat responds: “Why do you people always think we beat our wives as though they are animals? I swear on this Qur’an we’re humans just like you.” Hodjat is particularly outraged when the loss of his baby is seen as less important than the mistreatment of Nader’s father. Hodjat illuminates the mistreatment and neglect of the working classes, an issue that is also dealt with in the U.S.
In representing these two families, Farhadi further explores the integral role of religion. He shows us that even though the middle class family is seen as more “modern,” it is in fact the working class family that tells the truth in the end because of their religion. For Razieh, respect for God and the Qur’an are paramount. Her moral character proves to be important when she tells us she is more hurt to be considered a thief then to have lost her baby. Because of her core value of humility, she refuses to swear on the Qur’an that Nader caused her miscarriage because she cannot be certain.
The distressing ordeal of A Separation is best understood as an individual experience, for each audience member to respond to individually. This is the power of multilayered symbolism. After having witnessed layers upon layers of moral complexity, Farhadi refutes any confidence or totalized judgments we once had. Questions remain unanswered as we face another matted window wondering if Termeh will chose to live with Nader or Simin. This unanswered and open plane is precisely what Farhadi had planned. In an interview at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival Farhadi stated the following: “…I think the end of a movie should not be an end but a beginning for finding answers to the questions which have been raised in the course of the film…” Aside from the fascinating characters in A Separation, Farhadi has me continuously thinking about what it means to do “right” and be a “good” person.
What makes A Separation such an involving journey is that Asghar Farhadi has crafted a timeless story about everyday people involved in conflict that could easily befall anyone. It is an astounding piece, one that gives me the chills every time I watch it, not just because I identify with it as an Iranian but because in it I see the current state of Iran and the U.S. Farhadi shows us how complex conflict truly is, and how quickly problems can escalate, particularly with added people and various subjectivities. While these factors make it difficult to find a common ground, it is important to be open to the possibility of difference. A Separation introduces us to a situation in which difference is not placed under hierarchical lens. Just as we are left in the split courtroom corridor for what Termeh will decide, we speculate as to what the Iran-U.S future will be. Compelling through its raw power and insight, it is sure to resonate with people across multiple layers of society. If you missed it in theaters, be sure to see it when it comes out on DVD in August 2012.