A Separation (2011)

SeparationIran
4.5*

Director:
Asghar Farhadi
Screenwriter:
Asghar Farhadi
Director of Photography:
Mahmoud Kalari

Running time: 123 minutes

Original title: جدایی نادر از سیمین‎
Transliterated title: Jodaeiye Nader az Simin

A woman anxiously tries to cross a busy road in downtown Tehran to prevent an old man from being hit by oncoming traffic. She stands there, helpless, while cars whizz past her and the man fatefully shuffles closer and closer towards what seems like certain death.

Then, something unusual happens: There is a cut to a few hours later at an apartment, where the old man silently rocks back and forth, seemingly unaffected by the chaotic scene from earlier. This single cut, instead of being a cop-out on the part of director Asghar Farhadi, sets up a mystery that will last the entire running time of A Separation. Filmically, it is also a decision that makes perfect sense, since it immediately compels us, the viewers, to start figuring out what might have happened — and in so doing puts us in the same boat as the lion’s share of the film’s characters.

This incident, as well as another major event in the plot, when this same woman is tossed out of the flat and collapses in the stairwell, besides being a mystery that needs to be resolved by the end of the film, is also indirectly the result of the “separation” in the title. In the opening scene, staged so the viewers take the place of judges who will decide the fate of the couple that looks straight at us, we learn that husband and wife Nader and Simin want to separate so she can move to the United States while her husband stays behind to look after his elderly father, the man who would later seek to cross the road.

Though the situation and the motivations seem clear-cut enough, the film quickly reveals itself to be a very perceptive study of human drama, which puts forward an array of sometimes contradictory actions that cannot easily be understood or pigeonholed for the purposes of entertainment. Many small tragedies unfold along the way, not with melodramatic outbursts or big scenes of betrayal, but in very methodical increments that eventually escalate into a full-blown crisis.

Nader (Peyman Moaadi), who works during the day, cannot take care of his father and therefore enlists the help of a kindly woman named Razieh (Shahab Hosseini) to clean the flat and make sure the father doesn’t hurt himself. But on Razieh’s first day at work, the old man, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and rarely speaks, wets himself. This episode, which puts Razieh in a tough position, because she wants to help him without touching him — for, viewed in religious terms, that might mean she is committing a sin by making herself impure — is presented with genuine sympathy for both characters despite the filmmaker’s unmistakable view that it would be patently absurd for a religion to prevent someone from changing the soiled pants of an invalid.

The film’s focus is on the role of truth and lies in daily life, and it is Razieh who best captures this tension. She is obviously a good person and tells white lies to her husband in an effort to make his own life better, but moreover her docile attitude is likely the result of her husband’s rigid religious beliefs. While Razieh’s lies finally catch up with her, a lie that Nader’s daughter tells keeps him from going to jail, and this ambiguity of life is what many filmmakers over time have sought to capture.

It is truly admirable for a film to take on such complicated matters and keep them in line with the legal drama that occupies a large part of the plot. Going way beyond the constraints of a film such as Kramer vs. Kramer, A Separation is insightful enough to realize the truth, at times, can make things more difficult rather than easier, and the film is a journey, for the characters and for the viewer, towards discovering the truth behind the lies and the reasons for people’s actions.

The one major flaw of A Separation is the film’s rapid-fire editing that often covers a single scene from multiple angles in quick succession without offering a new perspective on the material. However, against the background of intelligent, understated commentary on Iranian society and with a visible representation of many different kinds of characters, this remains an emotionally satisfying film that is a significant milestone in Iranian filmmaking.

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