'A Separation' probes Iranians' conflicted love for their country, says director

Using a failing marriage as a metaphor, the acclaimed film 'A Separation' juxtaposes Iranians' great love for their country with growing despair that they may be forced to leave it in search of a better life.

Chris Pizzello/AP
Asghar Farhadi of Iran, director of the Golden Globe-nominated foreign language film 'A Separation,' poses at the Golden Globe Foreign Language Nominees Seminar, last week, at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles.

The escalation of global sanctions against Iran has deepened not only the country’s isolation from the rest of the world but also fissures within.

The divisions – exposed by the 2009 protests of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection – are not only political. They have also seeped into the country’s private sphere, fracturing families, alienating friends and colleagues, and creating new tensions in everyday interactions – particularly between the lower-income, often more pious citizens and the more wealthy urban classes.

While ordinary Iranians have continued to live their daily lives, they do so with a latent fear that Iran's social and economic pressures may one day become too much to bear.

A new film, which won a Golden Globe last weekend, depicts these ruptures beautifully – without ever mentioning politics.

In “Nader and Simin: A Separation,” director Asghar Farhadi juxtaposes love and despair, Iranians’ yearning for their homeland even as they seek to leave it, mirroring the hopelessness many Iranians feel about the future of their country.

The film, which premieres in Washington tonight and Boston next weekend, has been hailed by film critics and directors inside Iran and won great international acclaim as well. It received the Golden Bear for Best Film and Silver Bears for Best Actress and Best Actor ensembles at the 2011 Berlinale Film Festival and has been put forward as Iran’s official candidate for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards Feb. 26. It has already won awards at film festivals in the United States, Australia, Croatia, Russia, Britain, Spain, and parts of Asia.

Visas for the US

“A Separation” centers on the predicament of Nader and Simin, an upper-middle-class couple seeking a divorce. Nader’s wife, Simin, wants to leave Tehran for the United States in hopes of achieving a better future for their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh, while her husband wants to stay in Iran to care for his father, whose mental health is deteriorating.

The symbolism is palpable. Nader, Simin, and Termeh’s US visas require them to leave within 40 days, a period which in Iranian tradition marks the mourning period after a loved one’s death.

Simin is mourning the loss of her homeland and wants to make a fresh start in America. But when the couple decides to separate and she packs her bags to leave, Nader’s father – Agha Joon – calls her name and takes her hand. Simin has shown him love, and he doesn’t want her to leave.

The metaphor poses a dilemma to viewers: Must Iranians leave their homeland in order to attain a better future, or should they stay and try to care for – and possibly change – their country, even as it appears to be wasting away?

“There are those who simply want to live their lives, and feel they cannot live the way they want to in Iran. Others are ideologically motivated: They will stay no matter what and try to change things,” says Mr. Farhadi, the director. “I’m not judging whether one is right or wrong.... Everybody has a certain element of what could be considered as wrong or bad, but they do it for reasons we can understand,” he says.

Stark disparities in class, religion

Iran's unrelenting social, economic, and religious constrictions are aptly portrayed in A Separation, whose characters peer into one another's lives through see-through partitions, transparent shades, and glass windows.

After Simin leaves, Nader hires Razieh, a deeply religious woman, as a housekeeper and caretaker for his father. Razieh is pregnant and travels two hours by bus and taxi with her young daughter to get to and from Nader's apartment, but takes the job because her husband is unemployed and deeply in debt.

The seemingly ordinary decisions made by the characters lead to a series of terrible consequences, revealing stark disparities in class and religion that lie at the heart of Iran's social fabric today.

Farhadi insists A Separation is not meant to antagonize any one of the characters, or judge the deceptions they engage in. 

"Everybody has a certain element of what could be considered as wrong or bad, but they do it for reasons we can understand," he says.

In the film, Simin emphatically states she wants a divorce, but in truth wants Nader to ask her to stay.  Razieh is proud of her honesty and devotion to Islam, yet lies to her husband about working in the home of a single man. Nader lies to a state judge about knowing of Razieh's pregnancy, but tells Termeh the truth, ultimately encumbering his young daughter with the decision of whether or not to lie to the judge as well.

"In a sense, human agency has decreased," says Farhadi. "The characters are inherently good, but their environment pushes them to fight with one another."

At the end of the film, when Nader and Simin proceed with their divorce even after Agha Joon's death, the final decision of whether to live with Nader and stay in Iran, or leave the country with Simin, lies with their child, Termeh. It is a great burden for an 11-year-old to bear alone, but it is something she must do, according to Farhadi. 

"Termeh represents the future generation in Iran, which will eventually attain freedom,” says the director. “But in Iran, we think democracy means comfort, when in fact freedom means having to bear responsibility, which is difficult. Thus Termeh is experiencing freedom: but it is painful.”

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