Movie Review: A Separation
By Matthew Huntley
January 25, 2012
At first glance, A Separation doesn’t seem to be about anything. Some viewers may struggle to find its point, especially because it doesn’t follow the classic narrative structure to which Hollywood seems so inseparably bound. There’s no clearly defined setup; no single, central conflict; and no definite resolution. And yet, given its offbeat path, the film is ceaselessly watchable. The writer-director is Asghar Farhadi, an Iranian filmmaker you’d be wise to follow. He knows how to wind drama and tension so tightly that his film becomes an endurance test. It affects us at our core.
The film never stops to take a breath and consistently moves from one harrowing scene to the next. The authentic tone and happenstance situations suggest Farhadi based his screenplay on an actual first-hand experience, because it emits the type of truth that could have only come from real life.
It opens on a two-shot of a married Iranian couple, Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami). They’ve come before a judge because Simin is asking Nader for a divorce, but Nader doesn’t want to grant it. Simin wants to leave the country and start a new life abroad (to where, she doesn’t say), and she is willing to go with her husband, but he will not leave the country because his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) is sick with Alzheimer’s. Simin’s argument is that his father doesn’t even know him anymore. Both want to maintain custody of their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), who’s not allowed to leave without her father’s permission. The hearing ends without a divorce because both parties haven’t consented, so Simin decides to move out.
To compensate for his wife’s leaving, Nader interviews a caregiver-housekeeper named Razieh (Sareh Bayat). Despite the long commute and having her own five-year-old daughter to care for, Razieh takes the job because her husband is out of work. But when she learns just how much of a handful caring for an Alzheimer’s patient is, and that some aspects of the job may be sinful in her religion’s eyes, she asks Nader if her husband (Shahab Hosseini) can take the job instead. This arrangement seems promising until Nader and Termeh come home and find his father tied up and money missing. He immediately (and hastily) assumes Razieh is to blame. From this point on, the film follows its characters as they descend into the travails of miscommunication, accusations, lies and regrets.
Given what I just told you, you may be wondering what A Separation is actually about. On paper, it’s about two warring couples, each of whom wants compensation for wrongs they believe were done to them. But the crux of Farhadi’s film is to illustrate how all of us, in daily life, get caught up in conflicts that arise from our being unwilling to listen to each other and afraid to tell the truth because we fear what might happen to us. There are two people in the film who lie, and had they told the truth, it would have saved both families great hardship. In a way, the film is a fable and shows how one bad judgment can lead to several others until utter chaos ensues.
The film is not what you might call a pleasant experience and indeed it works at making us feel the same anxieties and stresses as the characters. Such an approach may not be traditionally entertaining, but it is untraditionally powerful. The lasting effect of A Separation comes from its ability to put us in the characters’ situations and make us empathize with them. Few films are able to do that, but those that can are usually the most memorable and remind us just how potent the cinema can be.
You could call A Separation a slice of life morality tale, but I think it’s more than that. With its stark realism, incessant energy, overlapping dialogue, moral stand-offs, reprehensible yet human characters (played by actors who are so strong they don’t appear to be acting at all), and Farhadi’s unflinching camera, the film is relentless the way it dissects its conflicts and makes us the witnesses of these peoples’ degradation. It’s uncomfortable, yes, but the point is to make us feel like we’re a part of it, no doubt because it hopes we’ll learn from it.
Although I have nothing but praise for A Separation, both for its technique and its drama, I realize it’s not for everyone. It’s often painful to observe the characters’ behavior and dialogue because we want so badly to step in and help them. But this quality is more virtue because my wish is that A Separation will pave the way for more films like it - the kind that teach us about ourselves (in this case, how we are too often blind to other peoples’ points of view). This film reminded me just how important it is to listen, be patient, behave honorably and, above all, speak the truth, no matter the consequences. It did all this unblinkingly and without resorting to traditional narrative devices. That’s a feat in and of itself, which is another reason why those who see it will remember it for years to come.