A Separation is one of the more expertly written, convincingly acted, and emotionally observant films in recent years. It is simultaneously both a taut high-wire act of suspenseful divergence and a free, open forum on human motivation. Asghar Farhadi, now the most important and promising filmmaker coming out of Iran as well as one of the most celebrated on the international circuit, is not interested in giving a Western audience a short-hand explanation of Iranian culture or politics in order to better understand the day-to-day plight of his rich, deftly orchestrated characters. Instead, Farhadi is interested in making us understand them from an evaluative, judiciary position using our own moral compass. The need for hard judgment, comprehensibly not a common requisite of modern cinema’s obsession with moral ambiguity, is forced into play by Farhadi’s film.
This approach may initially seem counter-intuitive, for how does one come to empathize with people of a foreign culture when made to interrogate their reasons and scrutinize their actions within a crisis that does, in fact, contain elements specific to their culture? If the ability to empathize through judgment is what’s in question here, A Separation answers with a definitive “yes”. This is a film presenting multiple individual realities and problems (stemming from the mundane, but ultimately proving momentous) that entrusts us to instinctively decipher them and apprehend the film’s wide range of emotions construed by numerous clashing viewpoints. The experience is engaging, perplexing, and by the end, fully surprising in terms of the humanity it reveals within Farhadi’s approach and our ability to empathize.
Right from the start of the film, Farhadi situates our perspective complicit with a family court judge as he hears the case for divorce between Nader (Peyman Moadi), a husband devoted to caring for his elderly father suffering from Alzheimer’s, and Simin (Leila Hatami), his wife devoted to her plans for their adolescent daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s own daughter) to leave the country with her towards a better life outside of Iran’s rigid policies. Each of them presents an impassioned yet sound case for why they must do what they must do, but the tense impasse that will inform and incite the film arises from Nader’s refusal to grant the separation his wife would need in order to travel abroad with their daughter. Simin refuses to leave without her, and in protest of the judge’s refusal to decide for them, she moves out of their home and in with her mother. To Simin’s surprise, Termeh, a quiet and sharp girl devoted to her education, refuses to go with her mother and strategically stays behind with her father, necessitating Simin to interact more regularly with Nader if she wants to spend time with her child.
Now feeling the full burden between care taking for his father, parenting alone, and his job, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a nanny who Simin knows through a friend, to care for his father and his home. Razieh, however, has her mind on her own matters that include her young daughter she must take to work, her unemployed, short-tempered husband who is unaware of her new job, and their new baby on the way. Tending to Nader’s father quickly proves to be too much as she begins to have complications with her pregnancy and the job requirements start to contradict her strict Islamic practices in regards to men. One afternoon, she exercises crucially poor judgment that adversely affects Nader’s father and justifiably sends Nader into an outrage, causing him to make his own crucial, violent mistake that may or may not have caused Razieh to eventually miscarry her baby. Suddenly embroiled in Razieh’s and her husband’s accusations at the same court his wife sought her divorce, Nader is now faced with murder charges and prison time that would render the care his father needs impossible. As their case progresses and further details surrounding the incident only complicate the validity of Razieh’s case and Nader’s part in her loss, Simin and Termeh begin to question Nader’s firm denial of the accusations, but nonetheless give whole-hearted attempts to help arrive at a resolution outside of the court system.
Within such an ethical conundrum of cause, effect, and shared liability as this, the greatest attribute of A Separation is how miraculously egalitarian it manages to be. It never vilifies a single act or decision, but warrants each and every one of them with the utmost respect. The suspense created by this film comes from our inability to find sole fault or to place blame on any one individual for what ensues, evenly distributing the guilt while making their actions entirely understandable. Everyone indeed has their reasons that, when considered individually, hold up and register as what most anyone would do given the personal situation of each character, even in the instances when Nader and Razieh decidedly bend the truth or don’t disclose it at all. When their reasons contend with the equally relatable reasons of others, all necessitate our reevaluation, a process that makes us aware that this film is an exercise in ethical debate in which every new piece of information changes our feelings about previous details.
Farhadi is intent upon demonstrating the relativity of truth and virtue, and the disquieting gray of moral ambiguity is the emotion he wishes to emphasize in the audience. His film is not so interested in arriving at the truth, but in presenting the facts for us to assess and draw our own conclusions, all the more thought-provoking in light of how skilled Farhadi nudges our alignment towards all sides. He solidifies our empathy by making sure to show Nader’s family as well as the family of his hired help are both operating under the same pressure despite their own social tensions and class disparities. Through the biting yet reasonable accusations of Razieh’s debt-fraught husband that Nader does not see them as people but only animals, the film does make it a theocratic class issue. But the distance from which we’ve been instructed to examine them shows their real issues are more ubiquitous than they can currently grasp. New York Times critic A.O. Scott recognizes both the cultural specificity and universality of these shared “petty, cumulative frustrations of modern city life… Simin and Nader must contend with work, their daughter’s schooling, Tehran traffic, and an officious and sometimes chaotic government bureaucracy.”
By the final quarter of the film, A Separation imperceptibly shifts back to the marital conflict it opened upon, reminding us the threat of change to Nader and Simin’s family was the central conflict all along. All Nader’s trials would not have produced results without the investigative efforts of Simin, who more than momentarily sets aside her own qualms to help her husband for the sake of preserving the failing remnants of their household. It’s as if Farhadi wanted this couple to endure one more tribulation that would determine whether or not their marriage could be sustained, their abilities to work in a crisis both admirable while indicative of their incompatibility. Much like the audience, their daughter Termeh has up to this point remained a studious observer, the final note sounding it is her life that will be most affected by her parents’ separation.
In the film’s closing hearing, the Iranian courts have left the decision of whether or not she will remain with her father or travel abroad with her mother entirely up to her. A Separation so beautifully crystallizes all of its poignant musings on the complex relativity in doing the right thing into this single moment. Termeh must choose the least detrimental way to preserve her family while ensuring her future. A defined outcome to it all was never Farhadi’s goal with A Separation, but the revelations afforded by continually debating morality are. “More than anything else, I think today’s world needs more questions than answers,” Farhadi says. “I’m not hiding the answers away from my viewers, I simply don’t know them. If you give an answer to your viewer, your film will simply finish in the movie theatre. But when you pose questions, your film actually begins after people watch it.”