Film Review: A Separation

A richly written and performed legal procedural from Iran that enlightens as well as entertains.

To read some of the more hyperbolic conservative screeds against contemporary Iran, one would think the country is a backwards, borderline medieval state with no law besides Sharia law and no industry besides terrorism. It almost goes without saying that the society on display in Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s terrific new drama, A Separation, is far more complex than that.

In this film, Iran is a place where a married woman who’s been employed as a housekeeper/caretaker has to place a call to a religious board in order to determine whether she’s allowed to clean the elderly Alzheimer patient in her care after he wets himself, as it would involve seeing him naked. But it’s also a country where that same woman can take her former employer—the older man’s grown son—to court and argue her case against him in front of a law-school trained judge, not a cleric. And while matters of personal honor are discussed in heated tones amongst the various aggrieved parties, no blood is spilt or stones thrown. While it would be naïve to suggest that religious extremism doesn’t exist in present-day Iran (and it’s doubtful that Farhadi himself would even attempt to make that claim), A Separation functions as a timely and thoughtful corrective to the country’s boogeyman image that too many American news outlets perpetuate, either intentionally or through incomplete reporting.

Beyond its effectiveness as a cultural-exchange tool, A Separation is just a damn fine movie, one that’s plotted as tightly as any Hollywood-produced courtroom procedural. Deftly juggling multiple storylines and points-of-view, Farhadi constructs a tale that consistently defies the viewer’s expectations, not to mention our own perceptions of what we think we’ve seen. For example, a virtuoso ten-minute sequence early in the film reveals a number of details that will become important down the road, but the writer-director doesn’t go out of his way to call our attention to them. Instead, they’re woven into the overall fabric of the scene and when the characters refer back to specific incidents later, our own memories of what exactly occurred prove just as unreliable as theirs. (Like all good procedurals, A Separation is a film that demands to be seen twice to fully absorb all the finer points of the central case.)

A Separation unfolds in the household of Nader (Peyman Moadi), a middle-class family man whose wife Simin (Leila Hatami) is in the process of filing for divorce, furious that her husband refuses to leave Iran and move abroad so that their teenage daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) can enjoy better opportunities. Nader has an understandable reason for wanting to stay put, though; his Alzheimer-addled father wouldn’t be able to make the trip with them and there’s no one else to care for him. Since Simin has moved out and both Nader and Termeh are occupied during the day with work and school, respectively, they need to hire someone to watch his father. Enter Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a young woman with an out-of-work husband, a small girl to provide for and another child on the way. Her “job interview” initiates the aforementioned detail-rich set-piece, which lays the groundwork for the legal drama that follows.

From the beginning, Razieh doesn’t particularly take to her new duties and, in fact, even makes a point of quitting, only to return the following day. But her inexperience causes her to make a significant error in judgment, one that gets her forcibly ejected from Nader’s apartment. In the ensuing scuffle, Razieh falls (or was she pushed?) down a flight of stairs and suffers a miscarriage. She and her husband waste little time dragging Nader before a judge, who quickly zeroes in on the most relevant question: Did Nader know that Razieh was pregnant? If so, he can be tried and convicted of murder. If not, the whole thing could be dismissed as a tragic accident. For his part, Nader insists that he had no idea she was expecting—after all, she was still in the relatively early stages of her pregnancy and thus hadn’t started to show pronouncedly yet—but Razieh is convinced that he overheard her mention her status back in that crucial scene at the beginning of the film. It’s a classic game of “He Said, She Said” that inspires severe emotional pain and uncertain futures for both families.

Although the story itself is small and self-contained, dramatically A Separation scales great heights, but never in a showy, overblown way. There’s a grim inevitability to the way events unfold that feels entirely authentic and Farhadi is careful to avoid making any one of his characters the obvious villain of the piece. (The closest we get to a classic “bad guy” is Razieh’s husband, whose violent temper often lands him in hot water.) In the end, all of these people are just ordinary, flawed individuals driven in their actions by a mixture of self-preservation and a fierce belief that they are in the right. And that’s something audiences all over the world can relate to, whether they live in Iran or America.