Given the title, and what little I knew about the film going in, I thought it was about the dissolution of a marriage, but it’s much, much more than that. The plot, which grows more intricate and intriguing as the film goes on, starts with a couple’s separation, but it’s not the Iranian Scenes From a Marriage. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Maadi) are before a judge, who is deciding whether they have grounds for divorce. The only disagreement is that Hatami wants to emigrate, due to an unspoken “situation” (presumably the political climate, but given the nation’s draconian censorship laws, we fill this in ourselves). Nader wants to stay to care of his father, who has Alzheimer’s.
The judge refuses their petition, but Hatami leaves to stay with her parents. This means Nader must hire a caregiver for his father. He hires a woman from well outside the city, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout Muslim who takes the job to help her family’s economic situation. Her husband, a hot-tempered fellow (Shahab Hosseini), who is out of work. However, she has taken the job without gaining his permission, which is against custom.
This sets off a series of events that will lead to a boiling cauldron of lies, slippery morals, and faith. I do not want to reveal anything more than that, as I had no idea what was going to happen and this is the best way to see the movie. Suffice it to say that we can’t be sure who is telling the truth and what is being concealed, even from those we can presume to be honest.
Because this film is from a deeply religious country, the laws of religion are noted, but if this were to take place in any other country it would still be fascinating, for different reasons. At the core is a basic human trait–the urge to lie to save one’s skin, or the skin of a family member. Loyalty is tested repeatedly throughout the film, with different results. It’s easy to put yourself in each character’s skin and think if you would do any different.
But since this film is from Iran, a country we might be at war with any day now, it provides an interesting glimpse into that culture. It is somewhat westernized, at least for the upper-middle-class Simin and Nader. But the traditions of patriarchy and the Muslim medieval treatment of women is still in force. The fact that Bayat wears a chador will come into play. I was also interested to see the Iranian justice system at work–it looks like the American DMV, with a judge sitting at a simple table in a small room.
The performances by the four principles are all first rate, as is a juvenile performance by Farhadi’s daughter, Sarina, as a girl torn between her warring parents, which will lead to the film’s final, gripping, scene. I found the most interesting performance to be by Bayat, as the devout woman who primary motive at any one time shifts between loyalty to God and to her husband.
A Separation starts slowly, but builds to climax that is as powerful as anything I’ve seen all year. I’m not sure if it will win the Oscar (there is a Holocaust film in the mix), but I doubt any of the four competitors could be any better.
My grade for A Separation: A