A Separation

A remarkable film from Iran reveals the tensions in two families.

A drama/mystery

  • Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi

One seldom finds clear heroes and villains in family turmoil. When marriages fail and people lose their temper, you’re most likely to find good people on both sides, angry and flawed, but trying to do the right thing.

Writer/director Asghar Farhadi understands that very well. He demonstrates how good people can turn against each other in this harrowing tale of divorce, family responsibilities, and courtroom drama.

The film’s Iranian origin makes it appear as a political film almost by default. After all, a_separationmany in our government and media want war with Iran, and that generally involves discouraging us for thinking of Iranians as human beings. Besides, the Iranian government has developed a bad habit of oppressing filmmakers.

But any politics you find in A Separation come from your imagination. The government only appears in the form of family and criminal courts, and these seem to be reasonable and even humane. I don’t know if this reflects the reality of the Iran court system as Farhadi sees it, or if the government insisted on being portrayed this way.

The story begins in family court. Simin wants a divorce from her husband, Nader. She admits he’s a good man, but she wants to leave the country (why and where to is never explained), and he won’t leave with her because he’s responsible for his Alzheimer-inflicted father. He agrees to the divorce, but refuses to give up their 11-year-old daughter.

No longer willing to live with her husband, Simin moves in with her mother. But before she does, she arranges for another woman, Razieh, to come in daily to do housework and care for her senile father-in-law. But Razieh is clearly not up to the job. She’s very pregnant, tires easily, has a young daughter in tow, and is hiding the fact that she’s working from her own unemployed husband. She tries her best, but her work is a disaster waiting to happen.

Disaster happens. When it does, Nadar loses his temper, and Razieh suffers a miscarriage. Soon Razieh and her husband are accusing Nadar of "murdering" their unborn child, and he’s facing prison.

The film’s second half becomes a mystery, filled with difficult-to-answer questions. Did he know she was pregnant (not all that obvious in the devout Razieh’s black cheddar)? Did she really fall down the stairs? When did the fetus actually die?

But the legal questions still take a backseat to the emotional ones. It becomes a story of two married couples, each with problems aggravated by the incident and legal issues. Everyone is doing what they believe is right, and soon people are doubting their own words.

I said earlier that the film isn’t political, but it is about class differences. One family is middle class and relatively secular. The other poor and very religious. Without these differences, the conflict would never have happened. And once it has happened, class stereotypes effect everyone’s behavior.

Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari uses a direct and intimate style here. He shot many scenes with a long lens, which tends to isolate characters from their surroundings–an important reflection on those characters’ emotional states. The camera is often handheld, adding to the tension.

Farhadi has given us a portrait of two families on the verge of breakdowns. By refusing to give us clear good and bad guys, he’s made a remarkable motion picture. This one will stick with you.