Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. Starring Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat and Sarina Farhadi. Running time: 125 minutes. Not rated.
Whatever your intentions, the things you say and the things you do have consequences, sometimes calamitous consequences. Try as we might, we cannot separate who we are from what we do, and so the ripple effect of our choices can have impacts we never imagined. This is the crux of Asghar Farhadi's emotionally harrowing yet deeply moving A Separation, which is up for the best foreign film Oscar this year.
From the film's opening shot, where a middle-class Iranian couple, Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), present their reasons for divorcing to an unseen magistrate, it is clear that Farhadi intends to involve the audience in his film, cleverly positioning us to play judge. Nader admits her husband is a decent man but she wants to leave the country with her daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Not only won't Simin accompany her but he refuses to allow his daughter to leave. He replies that he must care for his Alzheimer's-stricken father. This thwarts Nader's plans so she goes to live with her mother, putting her husband's household in a spin.
Hiring a poor, religious woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to care for his father while he is at work, Simin soon finds himself embroiled in unexpected complications. Razieh must bring her young daughter with her to work, has a hot-headed unemployed husband (Shahab Hosseini), and is pregnant. Worse, she fears that what she is doing is sinful since the job involves working for a single man and, when needed, changing his father's soiled undergarments. Things come to a head when Nader fires Razieh for neglect, accuses her of theft, and pushes her out of the apartment. She slips, falls on the stairs and suffers a miscarriage. This leads to an arrest for murder and legal proceedings that attempt to discern who knew and did what to whom.
Did Simin know Razieh was pregnant? Did Nader really want to leave her husband or did she act out because she doubted his love for her? Why did Razieh leave Simin's father alone, tied to his bed?
One of A Separation's many virtues is the way it gradually reveals, Rashomon-like, the complicated facts, half-truths, and lies that each character tells for perfectly legitimate reasons. There are no villains here but rather a string of difficult and self-serving choices made by flawed individuals. Farhadi understands that the value of truth is never clear cut and that honesty may not always be the wisest course of action. As the agendas and fears of Simin, Razieh, Nader, and Termeh become entangled we are confronted with a chain of events that no court could ever hope to fairly adjudicate. Farhadi is careful to regard each of his characters with compassion and empathy, acknowledging their motivations but never once taking sides. Similarly we find our sympathies constantly shifting between the players as each twist and turn is revealed.
What's makes this all the more fascinating is the way A Separation uses its domestic discord to confront issues of religion, class, gender, and politics. Never once is it unclear that the written and unwritten laws of Iranian society are male-centric, ever-looming over the couples' lives. Even something as simple as Termeh giving a tip to a gas-station attendant must be corrected because of its gender implications. And yet, as incisive as Farhadi's observations and implications are, he is savvy enough to present them in a way that feels painfully universal. More importantly, his subtext never interferes with A Separation's unfolding personal drama.
The ensemble cast is extraordinary, delivering performances that can only be described as naturalistic. Their emotions, reactions and urgency are unmistakeably authentic. Even the children (Termeh is played by Farhadi's daughter), three-dimensional characters in their own right, are impeccably real.
It is rare for a movie as quiet and modest as A Separation to be filled with so many cinematic surprises. Dense and emotionally complex, it demands close attention from its audience but delivers undeniable rewards. From the dignity and respect each of its character strives to maintain, to the doors and windows that become heartbreaking chasms they can't seem to cross, Farhadi has created a small masterpiece that challenges our assumptions and expectations. This is made poignantly clear in the film's final image, as Nader and Simin sit separately from one another in a court house hallway, awaiting a decision no parent should ever have to endure. And we as the audience are left where we began, forced to decide the final outcome. Whatever the verdict, it's sure to be wrong. —Jeff Meyers
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 24-25, and on Sunday, Feb. 26 at 2 and 5 p.m. It also screens on Friday, March 2 at 7 p.m. (This performance happens in the DIA Lecture Hall, enter via DFT lobby on John R.), and on Saturday, March 3 at 4 and 7 p.m. (inside the DIA Lecture Hall, enter via DFT lobby on John R.) and on Sunday, March 4 at 7:30 p.m.