A Separation a Masterful Work in Any Language

Things are seldom as they seem!


Directed by Asghar Farhadi

PG-13, 123 mins. In Farsi with English subtitles.

* * * *

The winner of the 2011 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture is the only film from Iran ever to do so, A Separation. I’ve not seen all of the foreign language entries, but I can report that the winner is certainly worthy of being honored. It is a complex and taut human drama about how easily things can spiral out of control.

The first thing that strikes you about this film is wonderment about how it got past Iran’s strict censors. There’s nothing racy or salacious in the film, but it is not a flattering portrait of modern-day Iran. It opens with an informal hearing in which Simin (Leila Hatami) has been given preliminary denial to her divorce petition from Nader (Peyman Moadi). She admits that he is a good man, but he refuses to leave the country with her. It’s never explained why Simin wants to leave, but you see it her eyes every time she tightens her head scarf: Simin doesn’t want to live under the rule of the mullahs, nor does she wish her 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) to do so. Nader ostensibly refuses to leave for just one reason: he is the caregiver to his father, who has Alzheimer’s.

The judge refuses the divorce, but he cannot force Simin to stay with Nader; she moves in with her equally feminist-minded birth family and leaves Nader to fend for himself. Termeh stays with her father with whom she bonds, but also as a bargaining chip to keep her mother from emigrating. Domestic unhappiness leads to tragedy when Nader hires a caregiver, the devout chador-wearing Razieh (Sarina Bayat), to care for his father when he’s at work. Nader is so desperate that he hires her before consulting with her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), as is customary of patriarchal Iran under the mullahs. Nor does he pay the slightest attention to her concerns about low pay, her long commute, or being asked to perform duties that could conflict with her religious principles. She is also five months pregnant, which Nader may or may not realize. This fragile situation unravels when Razieh needs to leave the apartment, ties the old man into his bed for safety, and Nader returns home early. He blows his stack and pushes Razieh out of the apartment.

What ensues is a series of court cases that are as labyrinthine and continuous as Bleak House. Those who think the US courts are screwy will feel better after checking out the twists and turns of Iranian justice. I will reveal no more than to say that simultaneous hearings take place for a murder charge, contempt of court, elder abuse, and Semin’s marital status. This is far more than a he said/she said case; it also involves social class, sexist presumptions that male rights supersede those of women, Koranic versus civil law, blood money customs, child custody, and a cultural ethos that encourages public brawls between hot-tempered males such as Nader and Hodyat. No one’s motives are quite what they seem. Is Nader being setup, or is he a liar? Is his father really the reason he won’t leave Iran with Semin? Is Razieh a victim, or a false accuser? Is Hodyat a wronged husband, or an extortionist? Termeh loves her parents, but does she trust either of them?

It takes considerable skill to make comprehensible a movie with this many loose threads. Luckily director Farhadi and his talented cast are up to the task. This film is subtitled, but it’s as gripping as anything you’ll see in English. Call it tragedy becomes Farsi, laugh at my bad pun (please!) swallow your reservations, and revel in a gripping story and superb filmmaking.

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