There’s no small irony in the fact that Iran has one of today’s most aesthetically developed film scenes precisely because it is a repressive society.
Not unlike American filmmakers during the days of Hollywood Production Code, Irani directors must find subtle, artistic ways to make their points without incurring the wrath of the theocracy. In a conservative society where the government’s will is enforced by the “morality police,” you’d best cloak your incendiary sentiments in something that looks like obedience.
“A Separation” isn’t incendiary, exactly, but writer/director Asghar Farhadi paints an unforgettable picture of a world where men and women must couch their behavior within socially accepted limits, and where the necessity of appearing pious often pushes them to do things that are anything but.
Farhadi’s film — this year’s winner of the Oscar for foreign language film — begins in a nondescript government office where Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) have come to air their marital disputes before a magistrate.
The couple have long planned to move abroad with their 10-year-old daughter and Simin is still determined to do so. Nader, however, is concerned about his aged father, now deep in the depths of Alzheimer’s. He has decided he cannot leave.
There seems no alternative but divorce. The magistrate — who handles these emotional issues with a perfunctory, officious manner — orders a cooling-off period, a separation. Simin will live for the time being with her parents. Nader will stay at home with his father and their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the filmmaker’s daughter).
At this point Simin, a red-headed, attractive physician whose outlook is considerably more progressive than that of her husband, takes a long hiatus. This is largely Nader’s story.
If he’s to care for his father, Nader will need help when he’s at work. His newspaper ad is answered by Razieh (Sareh Beyat), a woman who brings with her her own young child. Nader isn’t sold on Razieh, but he has no choice but to give her a chance.
When he returns at day’s end and finds his whimpering father on the floor and tied to the leg of the bed, he goes ballistic. He pushes Razieh out the door and onto the landing.
The next day he learns that Razieh was pregnant (who can tell beneath those loose, billowing clothes?) and has had a miscarriage. She and her hot-tempered, out-of-work husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) want Nader charged with the death of their unborn child. If convicted he could spend years in prison.
At this point “A Separation” becomes a troubling meditation on the truth. A desperate Nader is willing to lie — or at least massage the facts — to clear himself. But there’s also a hint that Razieh was already miscarrying when the altercation took place, and that she’s faking her story of falling down the stairs outside Nader’s apartment.
Throughout, all parties cast themselves a god-fearing, law-abiding citizens.
There are numerous issues here. Nader and Simin are solidly middle class, at least by Iranian standards. Razieh and Hodjat are blue collar … or would be if Hodjat could find work. So there are issues of caste and education and religious devotion (Razieh is an unequivocal fundamentalist; Nader and Simin much less so.
There’s a telling moment when Razieh, left alone with the old man, discovered he has soiled himself. Before she can clean him up she has to telephone a religious authority to make sure it’s OK for her to undress and wash a male who is not a member of her family.
That’s the kind of misstep that could put her in serious trouble.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong?
“A Separation” keeps us guessing to the film’s end and beyond. It’s been described as Hitchcock meets Bergman … and that sounds about right.
It’s certain to stir up audience arguments. My wife reports that she disliked Nader, seeing him as an example of patriarchal authority. I viewed him more charitably, as an average guy simply trying to keep things together during hard times.
And while the film never resolves the conflict at its core, it spends a lot of time observing the noncombatants: the old man (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), Termah and Razieh’s little girl (Kimia Hosseini), whose futures hang on the outcome.
“A Separation” tells us a lot about contemporary Iranian society, from the horrendous traffic to the bureaucracy that makes city life such a hassle. It also keeps much information close to the vest … getting too specific, one suspects, can get a filmmaker in hot water.