On the surface, A Separation (2011, directed by Asghar Farhadi) is a modest character study with careful observations of a marriage in freefall. The surface is deceptive. This is a film about truth and mystery whose questions open an inquiry into broader political and philosophical dimensions. This, along with the fact that the film is Iranian, makes it a political hot potato. There's been significant backlash against the film in Iran and its director is in exile. Becoming the first Iranian film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film only pours gasoline on the fire. For a film whose field of inquiry is so narrow and so modest, this all seems to the eyes of this Westerner to be surreal, though perhaps no more surreal than spectating the current political climate in the USA, which inadvertently lends this film a meaning to Americans that might not have been there even three years ago. The personal is political, I guess.
As I say, this is basically a character study. The characters involved are Nader and Simin (Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami), who are undergoing a crisis in their marriage. Simin has been hired to work abroad and has jumped through all the hoops with the government to make the journey. She has a 40 day window before her visa expires. She wants to take her daughter and husband with her, but Nader refuses to go. His reasons are equally valid. He has an invalid father who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. He's more than happy to let Simin go. He tells that to the judge who is overseeing their divorce. The bone of contention is their daughter, Termeh. Simin wants to take her out of Iran for a better life. The movie never comes right out and states the reasons why she thinks Termeh would be better off abroad--Iranian movies are very good at eliding their viewpoints--but it doesn't take a genius to realize that she's rebelling against the oppression of women in Iran. In any event. Simin is living with her parents while the divorce is happening. Nader, for his part, has hired a woman to look after his father when he's at work. Razieh is a devout woman who has serious issues with the demands of caring for an elderly man. After she has to clean the old man when he pisses himself, she decides that working for Nader is not for her. Circumstances, however, keep her in the job. Her husband, unfortunately, is unable to find work and she's pregnant. Things come to a head when Razieh is forced to make an emergency trip outside the apartment, leaving the old man locked in his room and tied to the bed. Nader finds him this way, and when Razieh returns, he shoves her out of the apartment. The next day, he's arrested for murder because Razieh miscarries her baby.
A Separation generally has the plot of a mystery. There are several questions that provide the keys to truth and falsehood: Did Nader know that Razieh was pregnant when he shoved her? Why did Razieh leave the old man? Is Nader actually at fault for Razieh's miscarriage? Each of these questions reveals something about the characters and about the society in which they live. Razieh, for instance, is undoubtedly a religious woman, but to what degree does this contribute to her own oppression? Nader, on the other hand, is a man of some affluence--he works in a bank--and what level of retribution should he be forced to pay for what he may or may not have done? Is blood money enough (if he didn't know Razieh was pregnant) or must he hang (if he did know)? And is this just? The issue of reproductive rights is the elephant in the room in this movie, never mentioned but impossible to ignore. The film's structure as a mystery has an intensifying effect on its drama, too, given that the stakes involved are life and death. It's clever in the way it presents its facts. This is a film I want to see again, because I want to pick over what it actually shows the audience, whodunnit-style, before coming to an uneasy resolution. I know it omits one huge fact until the end.
Each of the characters are distinct and the movie gives each of them comprehensible motives for their actions. This is no small thing. The performances in this movie are terrific. It's such an ensemble piece that it seems wrong to single anyone out, but I'm partial to Shahab Hosseini, who plays Razieh's hothead husband, though that may be because barnstorming seems to work in any language. I'm used to it. Sareh Bayat is a good deal more subtle as Razieh; she communicates almost all of her character with body language. I also like Sarina Farhadi, who plays Termeh. But, as I say, this is a film chock full of good performances.
The look of the film seems like it's close cousins to Western indies. Lots of handheld camera work. Farhadi is careful with his placement of characters in the frame, though. There are a lot of shots in the film where the principle actors are placed on opposite sides of barriers. The geography of the opening shot is significant, too: Nader and Simin are each arguing their case to a judge. Both of them are on a bench in front of the camera but the judge is off-screen. In relation to the characters, the judge is sitting in the audience. It's inviting us, the viewer to be the judge while the film makes its case.
One other thought I carried away from the movie: I wish I could show this to some of the hawks who want to go to war with Iran right now. I think they might have an image of Iran as some kind of goat pasture in the desert, even though the Tehran of this film is a modern city with a relatively sophisticated people. Persia is one of the great civilizations, after all. It would be a shame to wreck it. Which brings me back to politics, I guess. It's always a political act when a demonized population is shown to be human, with comprehensible problems and moral dilemmas, which is exactly what this film does. In the US, this film is quietly subversive. I'm only speculating about this film's relationship to Iran itself, but the coded critique of the place of women here seems subversive as well (hell, it's subversive in the USA, too). Authoritarian regimes have thin skins, so I don't doubt that this film is seen as a slight, which means that they're not looking at the film, but at their own privileges. They could learn something if they would just bother to see it.