‘A Separation’: An Iranian culture clash disguised as a tragic, epic domestic drama

Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi in A Separation. (Sony Pictures Classics)
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The events in Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, seem both chaotic and inevitable, unfolding like a slow-motion disaster. 

Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) are a separated Iranian couple with an 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Simin has been making plans to move abroad, and Nader, who takes care of his Alzheimer's-stricken father, does not want to go. There is also Termeh to consider. She is in school. Would it be right to uproot her? The reasons for Simin wanting to flee are left vague, although she does tell the divorce judge in the opening scene, "I don't want to raise my daughter under these circumstances."

"What circumstances?" asks the judge.

Simin does not answer.

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Simin has moved out and is now living back with her mother. Nader, desperate for help with the caretaking of his father while he is at work, hires a nursemaid. This is how Razieh (Sareh Bayat) comes into their lives. What follows is a clash of competing interests and a class struggle, exposing seething resentments on either side of the divide. A shattering film, A Separation lets events play out as they would. There is no manipulation here, no deus ex machina, no obvious plot points. The script, also by Farhadi, is fantastic.

Simin and Nader are from the shrinking Iranian middle class. They are educated and modern. Simin, a teacher, wears elegant silk head scarves and jeans. Razieh, on the other hand, comes from a poor and more traditional background, and wears the full black chador. Her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) can't get a job, and he has been in and out of debtors' prison for a couple of years. They have a 5-year-old daughter (one of those beautifully un-self-conscious children so common to Iranian cinema), and another child on the way. Razieh, desperate to keep her family afloat, takes the job of caring for the old man with Alzheimer's, behind her husband's back.

Iranian cinema, in the last couple of decades, has earned an international reputation for excellence, from the work of avant-garde auteurs like Abbas Kiarostami, the sweeping poetic innovations of Bahman Ghobadi, or the gritty street dramas of currently imprisoned director Jafar Panahi. Due to censorship issues, Iranian directors often have to take elliptical routes to make their points.

A Separation may sound, on the face of it, like a domestic drama, and it is that. But it is also an examination of the clash of cultures going on in current-day Iran: tradition meeting modernism. Both sides lack respect for the other. To Razieh and her husband, Simin and Nader are godless tools of Western capitalism. To Simin and Nader, Razieh and her husband are ignorant, backward, and evidence of all they despise about Iran. The chador is what often gets the most attention in the West and in A Separation nothing much is said about it, although all you have to do is look at Simin and Razieh side by side to get the point. In his 2006 film Fireworks Wednesday, another fantastic domestic drama exposing the class divide in Iran, Asghar Farhadi used the chador more explicitly. Here, in A Separation, there are problems far more pressing than what women choose to wear.

Razieh is nervous in her new job, and intimidated by the wealth of her new employer. One day she makes a decision while caring for the old man, a decision that will have vast repercussions. Nader, furious, under a lot of pressure, fires Razieh.

That's when A Separation takes off.

To say more about the plot would be a disservice to this finely wrought, tense film that calls to mind the pressure cooker of Henrik Ibsen's plays, with its indictment of a society that leaves many of its participants no way out.

The acting is universally superb. Leila Hatami, a star in Iran who made an indelible first impression as the depressed, infertile wife in 1998's Leila, has been turning in fantastic performances for over a decade now. Here, in A Separation, she is a woman with one foot out the door at all times. Her bags remain packed. She wants to take Termeh with her, but Nader will not grant her a divorce on those grounds. Hatami manages all of these complex emotional realities with an ease and power that shows why she is such a big star.

But it's really Peyman Moadi's movie. Moadi is a screenwriter (he wrote the heartbreaking 2006 triptych tale, Cafe Setareh), but he is also one hell of an actor. As Moadi, his acting is so specific, so nuanced and yet powerful, that it has to be seen to be believed. Within two seconds of his appearance, I knew I was in great hands, and just sat back to watch him in awe. The hand-held camera following him through his apartment adds to the documentary feel of what Moadi is doing. There is one moment where, after a terrible day, as the confrontation with Razieh starts to reach a breaking point, he gives his father a bath in the bathroom. Concentrated on the task, he rubs his father's back, lifting up his father's arms, tenderly caring for the man who is now mostly lost to the world due to his disease. Over the course of the short scene, Moadi eventually breaks down, pressing his face into his father's wet back, sobbing. As Nader, Moadi turns in a tour de force performance that is the opposite of self-congratulatory. He is magnificent.

Sarina Farhadi, as Termeh, the daughter on the verge of adolescence, with a front-row seat to the dissolution of her parents' marriage, is definitely someone to watch. She is a child, but she goes toe-to-toe with all of the experienced actors jostling around her. Farhadi's face is serious and thoughtful, but with deep pain behind it, a pain she feels she cannot show to her parents. She is solitary with her troubles. You root for her. She's a good kid.

As Razieh and Hodjat, Sareh Bayat and Shahab Hosseini have an urgency that is palpable, the urgency of people with no recourse. Shahab Hosseini is a handsome and strapping guy, and as Hodjat we see what happens when an entire generation is emasculated for want of meaningful work. This man is strong, obviously capable, handsome and responsible. His society has failed him. His life has been devastated by his encounter with Simin and Nader, and he is determined to make them pay. Hodjat could have been written as a complete stereotype, a villain. Instead, Farhadi's script allows us to see his point of view. And Sareh Bayat, as the shy and religious Razieh who also has a backbone of steel, is fearless in showing the often unforgivable actions of the character. It is difficult not to ache for the hardship of this woman's life.

Nobody is operating with malicious intent here; nobody is evil.

That's why A Separation earns the right to be called a tragedy. I wept for everyone involved.

A Separation is not only one of the best films of this year's NYFF, but one of the best films of the year, period.

Screening some of the most highly anticipated films of the season, along with special programs and series focusing on directors and avant-garde work, the 49th New York Film Festival runs to October 16. Take a look at the schedule and purchase tickets here.