If only all dramas were as compelling as A Separation.
The latest film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, but it should have been nominated for Best Picture.
It is honest and realistic in a way only a select few dramas ever manage to be. Yet its realism does not rely on any meandering or purposeless filler in an attempt to replicate everyday life. There is nothing that feels contrived about this film and it completely avoids being boring, something American mumblecore films cannot achieve.
The film begins with Nader and Simin talking to a judge in a small court office. Simin wants a divorce so she can leave the country with their daughter Termeh. Nader refuses to leave since he cares for his father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Both love each other and want to remain married, but they are at cross-purposes regarding what’s best for their family. The judge doesn’t find enough warrant in Simin’s complaints to justify a divorce. The couple leaves the office frustrated and Simin goes to live with her mother.
The rules of the entire film are established in this opening scene and the dynamic between the husband and wife takes centre stage. We never see the judge they are addressing. The scene is a long take with the camera taking the place of the judge. It is as if the characters are addressing us and entreating us to take their side. Both characters have justifiable reasons for their positions on the issue at hand and throughout the film the viewer will likely waver in sympathy between the characters.
In the absence of Simin, Nader seeks to hire a maid to care for his father while he is at work. He hires a poor and deeply religious pregnant woman, Razieh. Razieh comes during the day with her little daughter to clean and make sure Nader’s father doesn’t wander off or hurt himself. She is there without the approval of her husband Hodjat but compromises her strict religious beliefs because she needs the money.
Razieh proves an inattentive caretaker, however, and one day Nader returns home to find his father tied to his bed and Razieh nowhere to be seen. When she does appear, Nader fires her and forcibly ejects her from the house. She falls down the stairs and has a miscarriage. When Hodjat finds out, he charges Nader with murder, and the characters become embroiled in a legal battle over who the guilty party is.
Much of what makes A Separation fascinating is the look behind the veil of Iranian society. It is strange to see people constantly swearing on the Qur’an and to have a woman call a religious hotline to ask whether it is a sin to change the soiled pants of a senile old man. Yet there is an abundance of universal truth here. These characters are good, intelligent people trying to make the best choices they can, but their feelings keep getting in the way of making the right decisions. No language or cultural barrier can stop these characters from being relevant and fascinatingly honest portraits of humanity.
The film is superbly written and it is a testament to Asghar Farhadi’s skill as a writer and director that all the characters come across as sympathetic and real. The actors are all wonderful, although Peyman Moadi as Nader and Sareh Bayat as Razieh are the most dynamic. Though their performances are often understated, their work never falls flat.
The filmmaking is personal and keeps the film’s focus tightly on the characters. The entire movie was shot with a handheld camera, which gives the film an intimate feel. However, despite the camera being handheld, the shots are composed with clarity and the cinematography still makes the ordinary beautiful.
The film clocks in at slightly over two hours but feels very fast-paced. It is gripping cinema. A Separation is personal, profound and insightful in how it understands the incapacity of the law to take into account personal feelings and experiences.