Conflict in this film has the structural complexity of a spiderweb. One event or turn of the plot fuels everything in this surprisingly intense conversation film, causing each of the mostly humane and decent characters to turn on one another in sometimes aggressive, sometimes passive ways, but it's always thoroughly thought-provoking.
A Separation (2011) dir. Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini, Sarina Farhadi
By Alan Bacchus
In the opening Nader and Simin, husband and wife, well-dressed, articulate and educated, are engaged in a heated discussion in front of a judge. Simin has made an application for divorce, which Nader denies. Simin wants to take their daughter abroad to give her a chance for more career opportunities in life. Nader needs to stay to care for his Alzheimer’s-inflicted father. Simin doesn’t leave the country but moves out of the house, leaving Nader and their daughter together at home with his ailing father.
Requiring a nurse to watch the old man, Nader hires Razieh, a desperate woman, pregnant with an unemployed husband. And so, it’s no surprise that the job is a burden to her physically and emotionally. The shoe drops when Nader comes home to find his father alone, tied to the bed with Razieh nowhere to be found. When she returns, an argument turns physical as Razieh is pushed out the door and falls to the ground. The next thing Nader knows, Razieh is taken to the hospital, miscarries and Nader is charged with murder.
From here, Farhadi crafts a riveting battle of wills, primarily between Nader and Razieh’s husband, Hojjat, a hot-head with a violent streak who not only challenges all of Nader’s excuses but could just be a physical threat to him and his 11-year-old daughter.
It’s a confounding moral twister. We sympathize with each of Farhadi’s characters, as each of them articulates a reasonable argument for guilt and innocence in the matter. Farhadi is clear to make Nader the everyman in this situation, an innocent subject to an accident and tumultuous conundrum into which any of us could have been thrown. But everyone is a victim in this story, and Farhadi’s objective approach causes us just as much confusion as we wrestle with own personal sense of judgment. Is Nader guilty for pushing Razieh, however justified? Is Razieh guilty for not disclosing her pregnancy? Is Simin guilty for leaving the family, forcing Nader to hire a stranger to look after his father?
Being an Iranian film, Farhadi also manages to subvert our expectations of commenting on the controversial political or social issues associated with the country. Admirably Farhadi does not pass judgment on the Iranian law, politics, religion or social mores, he simply takes them for granted and plays his conflict within the constrained bubble of the country’s customs and traditions of society. For example, one of the sources of conflict is the fact that Nader gives the nurse the job without consulting the nurse's husband – something protested by Hojjat in the heat of one of the many verbal arguments.
In Western/North American culture it’s impossible not to reject this as a point of argument for Hojjat, but in Iran this is the way things are and Farhadi never asks us to pass judgment on this. The result is a culturally sensitive film accessible to even the most ignorant or culturally insular audiences.
A Separation is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in Canada.