Seeing the Iranian film A Separation brought to mind something that my photojournalist friend Lorna Tychostup said nine years ago when she was getting ready to visit Iraq, just a month before the US invasion got underway. Lorna had but one simple agenda for her audacious trip, the first of many to that war-torn country. “It’s harder to drop bombs on people once you’ve seen their faces and know that they’re human beings, just like you,” she told me. Remembering those words makes me wonder if the fact that A Separation just won a much-deserved Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film will have any bearing on what our leaders decide to do in the near future about Iran’s persistent efforts to join the nuclear club. Its presence in our theatres – a few of them, at least – couldn’t be more timely.
Let me say right off the bat, sans equivocation, that A Separation is a cinematic masterpiece: probably the most compelling movie that I’ve seen in the past year. On a surface level, it’s about the legal structures and social mores that make separation and divorce even more complicated and traumatic in an Islamic theocracy than they are everyplace else. But this movie is no dry sociological study; the levels on which it grabs the viewer and never lets go during its two-plus hours of running time are much more universal.
More than anything else, A Separation is about the nature of truth and the price of telling it – or bending it to fit necessity. Each of us, screenwriter/director Asghar Farhadi seems to say, has our breaking point at which a “white lie” seems preferable to ethical rigidity. And each such deviation from the truth has its consequences that compound to drag our loved ones into a morass of conflict and betrayal.
It’s a theme that resonates in any culture, and the characters who populate A Separation seem like very real human beings indeed. Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a middle-class, secular Tehran couple with an 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Simin wants to raise and educate her daughter outside Iran and has been trying to get exit visas for years; but when they finally come through, Nader refuses to go with them because his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) has Alzheimer’s disease and is unable to care for himself. Under Shari’a law, Simin must get a divorce in order to emigrate without her husband. The movie opens with a judge finding that the couple lacks sufficient grounds for divorce and Simin moving in with her mother to establish a legal separation. Termeh refuses to go with her, hoping that by staying with Nader she can keep her parents from splitting up permanently.
The drama really begins when Nader hires a devout lower-class woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to care for his ailing father while he is at work. Razieh, who has not secured permission from her volatile, unemployed husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) to work in a man’s home with no other women present, immediately finds the assignment challenging to her religious strictures – especially when the old man wets his pants and cannot clean himself up without hands-on help. Razieh tries to get Hodjat to take over the job without letting him know that she was there, but he is arrested by his creditors and she has to return the next day. The senile father manages to slip out of the apartment unnoticed, and Razieh’s pursuit of him sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in an argument in which Nader shoves her out the front door and slams it in her face.
Later, Nader and Razieh are informed that Razieh has been hospitalized for a miscarriage, and under Shari’a law Razieh is able to press murder charges against Nader, claiming that he threw her down the apartment house’s staircase. Much of the ensuing legal entanglements hinge on whether or not Nader had known that the burqa-shrouded Razieh was pregnant. Hodjat wants a “blood money” payment to extricate himself from debt, and the proud Nader doesn’t want to admit to any wrongdoing. Both Simin and Termeh, who finds herself stalked by Hodjat at school, are drawn into the furor, with Simin trying to calm things down by negotiating with the desperate couple behind her unrelenting husband’s back.
The narrative of A Separation takes place over the span of about a week but feels like it’s unfolding in real time, with a new tiny piece of the puzzle clicking into place at practically every moment. The viewer’s sympathies are constantly shifting as deceptions are uncovered, and we can fully understand why even the most repellent character has to do what he does. No one is immune to the stresses that force moral compromises – not even the sad-eyed, beleaguered Termeh, who wants so badly to believe in both her parents and eventually has to choose between unacceptable alternatives. It’s partially the Iranian system that’s at fault – the rigid laws, the traditional male and female roles, the economic disparities – but it’s also just plain human frailty. Ask anybody who has ever been through a divorce whether he or she was able to cling to the moral high ground at all times, with so much at stake.
It’s a wonderful thing in these times to be able to enjoy a movie that totally engages our attention with a dramatic premise that seems based entirely in real-life situations, without any gimmicks, absolute moral judgments or even exaggeration. A Separation is a satisfyingly thick stew of humanity displaying its many shades of grey, with flawlessly convincing performances from the entire cast, young and old. It will continue for another week at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, but whither after that cannot yet be predicted, so see it when and where you can. Meanwhile, let us hope that our country’s solutions to the Iranian Problem are determined with a level of nuance and compassion comparable to those found in this memorable, soon-to-be-classic film.