In these days of machine-tooled movies with machine-tooled characters it can’t be stated often enough that, when it comes to matters of the heart, simplest is often best. It's a lesson Hollywood has lost, but it crops up occasionally in movies from abroad and never more triumphantly than in “A Separation.” I think this Iranian movie by the writer-director Asghar Farhadi is the best film of the year.
The storyline is a prime example of how an artist can widen a small-scale domestic situation into an entire microcosm of society. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave her husband Nader (Peyman Maadi), a middle-class bank employee, because he won’t go along with her desire to emigrate in search of better opportunities for their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter). Nader feels obligated to stay with his aged father (Ali-Asghar-Shahbazi), who lives with them and has dementia, but we sense that there is also more to it. Even though he is comparatively secular and bourgeois by Iranian standards, he still partakes of the prevailing patriarchy. Prideful, he wants to call the shots.
With Simin living with her mother while Termeh stays behind with Nader, he hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout, chador-clad Muslim woman with a 4-year-old daughter, to look after his father. Razieh has not dared tell her hothead, out-of-work husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) about her job; she also has not told Nader – or did she? – that she is pregnant. When Nader and Razieh scuffle, she accuses him of causing her subsequent miscarriage. The lawsuit that ensues, in which Nader is charged with murder and both sides grow increasingly vehement, plays out as a tragedy in which religion and the class system is as much on trial as the protagonists.
Farhadi keeps the story open-ended, so that we, as much as the characters, are unclear about what actually happened. We don’t see the details of the scuffle, nor are we privy to everything that was said between Nader and Razieh. Farhadi isn’t playing games with us. He wants us to recognize that, in the end, no one in this story is culpable; everyone is caught up in a situation spun dangerously out of control.
Razieh is perhaps the movie’s most conflicted character. When she is asked to bathe the naked, soiled old man, she fears the religious consequences and calls an Islamic hotline to seek permission. Razieh is devout and yet she may not be telling the truth about her confrontation with Nader in her testimony before the magistrate. She also holds back from her husband, who is so incensed at Nader that he begins harassing both him and Termeh.
Scared and bewildered, the girl, with her watchful, wary eyes, is pulled into the escalating warfare. Her bewilderment is as much about her father as it is about his accusers. He attempts to use her to his advantage in his defense, and her equivocations lead to consequences that can have no easy resolution – because life is like that.
Farhadi has said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times: “I have watched the film together with many audiences in different parts of the world and there have been a few people who see it as having a political point of view, others who see it as having a moral perspective, others who see it with a social aim, others who see it as reflecting ordinary day-to-day life. It can be any of these things.”
Or, more to the point, all of these things. “A Separation” describes the totality of this society. This is a world in which inevitably, inextricably, the religious and the secular, the social and the political are all one.
The irony here is that Farhadi has made a supremely evenhanded movie in a country notorious for clamping down on its filmmakers. The film is even the official Iranian entry for the foreign film Oscar.
Perhaps the Iranian authorities are cynically offering up “A Separation” as a propagandistic example of how liberal-minded they can be. And perhaps Farhadi, with all his talk about how the film can mean whatever you want it to mean, is playing his own diversionary game.
In the end, it's the film alone that matters. “A Separation” is not the work of a constrained artist. It’s a great movie in which the full range of human interaction seems to play itself out before our eyes. Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material.)