Photo released by the movie production.
A Separation is a poignant story of two families struggling against odds and distress to remain together, striking us with the question : isn’t this the story of our very own lives? The Oscar-winning film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi is a mix of domestic drama and legal thriller that treats subjects in a way that runs beyond bigger conflicts in Iran, speaking out to international viewers as much as it does to its Persian-speaking audience. It is a story that questions the stakes involved to maintain a family in Iran and everywhere else, showing us that the space between the mystified Islamic country and the rest of the world is not as big as we imagined it to be.
The film begins with Simin’s (Leila Hatami) request for divorce from her husband Nadar (Peyman Moadi) in a small courtroom. This is because Simin would like to leave Iran for another country and bring along her daughter Tehmeh for an unspoken reason, but Nadar rejects such proposition on the grounds that he must stay to take care of his old father with Alzeimer’s disease. The couple justifies themselves in front of a magistrate hidden behind the camera, thus speaking to the viewer and taking him as the judge of the affair. The couple clearly has a diverging outlook in life: one believes that leaving the country is a way out of “those circumstances” in Iran, a way of embracing an unforeseen future together with the young daughter; whereas the other holds that the obligation to an elderly makes it impossible to detach from his roots and the past.
The judge of the film, however, decides that the request is unfounded and therefore the case is to be dropped. The story quickly spins into a sack of domestic problems as the mother nevertheless moves out, while the father is left alone to take care of a sick old man and a teenage daughter perturbed by her parent’s separation. Nadar then hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) as housekeeper and caretaker, who commutes everyday for the underpaid domestic job. Due to an unexplained event and a series of consequences caused by characters that intend no harm to each other, the two families soon find themselves in a strenuous situation where Razieh accuses Nadar for causing her miscarriage.
A lengthy part of the film then goes onto telling the characters’ desperate attempt to defend their own integrity and honor. Confusing facts accumulate as the story proceeds, but truth is slowly revealed by the way an onion is peeled – the director unveils the fuller picture progressively through the mediation of the daughter Termeh (excellently played by Sarina Farhadi, who is also daughter of the director), and each small revelation causes more plight and pain to the two families.
Termeh first seems to be a peripheral victim and bearer of the family’s struggles, but later takes up the pivotal role that urges her parents to utter unspeakable truths that would otherwise break the family apart. She also points out truths to her parents that would otherwise remain unnoticed. Her part in the fissure between truth and honor, lies and deception, highlights the complexity of its characters and the emotional brutality in the drama that she silently coalesces into herself. Her role therefore holds the family’s frayed problems into one tightly structured story, showing Farhadi’s masterful storytelling skills, which have also won him the Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
As Farhadi himself says, he is a filmmaker and not a political spokesman. His film evaded censorship (it was even the official Iranian entry to the Oscars) without betraying the reality of his country, referring vaguely to the Iranian situation by the mother’s desire to leave “those circumstances” that are unsuitable to her daughter. Through the mother figure who actively seeks a better environment for her daughter and herself, and by empowering the young daughter to be capable of manipulating the plot, Farhadi has given a voice to Iranian females to express their strength and ambition. Yet above all, he realistically illustrates how frustration caused by the accumulation of domestic problems erode a family and pervade the preoccupation of the “greater” discourse of politics and religion, with these two elements contributing merely as additions to the graver burdens that the characters already carry, all the while interlacing the story with themes of gender, class, and generation.
Even when Nadar’s accused case of fetus-murder is finally solved, it by no means foretells the couple’s reconciliation. This perhaps represents the filmmakers’ bleak outlook of family life, incarnated into the layered emotions of a family’s tragedy that has trapped its multi-dimensional and ultimately humane characters. Farhadi’s masterful film, if compared to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s attempt in Biutiful (which is also the story of a father’s struggle to cope with his divorced wife and two young children), makes the latter seems to be a far more elementary and naïve attempt to produce “tragedy” by simply adding up tragic events together without thoughtfulness.
A Separation eventually ends as how it started: this time it is the daughter who speaks to the hidden magistrate to pronounce her decision on with which parent to stay after their divorce. She is therefore taken as the judge in the affair, once again taking up the moral and legal burden and being torn between two individuals looking for different ways of life; while the viewer stays as the ultimate judge of the story, as the final question nevertheless remains unanswered by the filmmaker. Through A Separation, we have gained access to a culture mystified by the Western media in the past three decades. In reality, we have the same struggles, the same judgments to make. We are as ordinary as those in Iran.