Sometimes a film’s characters are so complex and realistic they don’t feel like fictional characters at all, but actual human beings. The superb Iranian drama A Separation is one of the top five best films of 2011, it just won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and it’s populated by figures that feel more authentic than any other movie’s in recent memory, short of documentary subjects.
Actually, director Asghar Farhadi, working from his own excellent screenplay, does display an aesthetic that has documentary-like realism and intimacy. With a grainier, dustier film stock and a shaky camera, the film all but drops the viewer down into Tehran’s arid and hoary urban landscape. In the city’s local courthouse, where the movie’s extraordinary opening scene takes place, a man-and-wife, Nader and Simin, sit pleading for a divorce that the courts refuse to grant them. Simin, a stronger-than-your-average-stereotype Iranian woman, recognizes the hardships and lack of opportunities that come with living in Iran. She wants to take her pre-teen daughter, Termeh, and leave. However, her father-in-law is afflicted with Alzheimer’s and there is no way her husband will leave his sickly father destitute and alone. Without a court-authorized divorce, Simin cannot get custody of her daughter, and the two can never leave the country for a better life.
The scene plays out in an unbroken, static two-shot, in which the couple sit facing the camera and stare directly down its barrel. In a touch lifted from Kurosawa’s Rashomon, we never see the judge at all. With the actor’s looking desperately in our eyes as they beg for a way out, we become the judge, and the rest of the film’s intricate narrative unravels as a series of lies, deceits, misunderstandings, colliding perspectives, and contradictory stories that leaves it to each individual viewer to seek out their own comprehension of truth and justice.
Simin and Nader agree to a trial separation, but with Simin gone, Nader needs to find someone else to care for his father everyday. Along comes the highly incompetent—and highly pregnant—Razieh who only takes the job because her hotheaded husband, Hodjat, is stuck in debtor’s prison. An incident occurs between Razieh and Nader that initially seems mundane, but escalates into a criminal investigation with disastrous potential. As we watch these people’s lives go from bad to worse, it’s our job to prune through the film’s more compounded entanglements and characterizations to form our own opinion about what really happened and who’s responsible for the consequences. The task is complicated, however, as Farhadi uses a semi-omniscient narrative style that picks and chooses, very carefully, what information to divulge and what to keep hidden from view.
Brilliantly, A Separation avoids easy archetypes and clichés at every turn. Each character is highly sympathetic, but not completely in the right either. It’s a film without any traditional villains—one whose four central characters are all guilty of making bad decisions, yet somehow those decisions remain understandable and identifiable. Simin wants to leave Iran, which to Western eyes seems like a pretty good realization, but her callousness towards her father-in-law is hardly graceful. In fact, her abandonment of her family in the film’s first minutes—a choice she makes out of what seems like stubbornness and spite—kicks off the entire spiral of mishaps and pitfalls. Nader is no saint, either. He’s loyal and loving to his father and daughter, and even agrees to the divorce, but becomes perhaps the most dishonest and remorseless character in the film.
While the picture is obviously a condemnation of Iran’s draconian criminal justice system, it also provides a lens into the state of the rest of Iranian society. Since Nader and Simin are middle class while Razieh and Hodjat are struggling and impoverished, their fight becomes one of class distinctions. Both couples have young daughters that watch with open and impressionable eyes as their parents sink down rabbit holes of petty malice and feuding vindictiveness. The condition of Nader’s father, and the way he’s treated by those around him, helps the viewer understand the culture’s traditional familial obligations, but also the insensitivity regarding the undesirability of the nation’s old and infirm. Razieh’s Achilles Heal is her piousness, which keeps her from swearing to anything she cannot be 100 percent certain of. While Nader’s more secular nature gives him an advantage in court, as his only responsibility is to his own wellbeing and that of his kin.
Working out of a theocracy notorious for its cinematic censorship, Farhardi has braved the courts himself to make a film that has all the trademarks of a conventional melodrama, but its verisimilitude and copious complexities make it a film that far transcends its genre to become something provocative, accusatory and moralistically ambivalent. His approach achieves a universal relate-ability coupled with a more cultural specificity that gives Westerners a fly-on-the-wall view into a world that couldn’t be more similar and different.
The most extensive and essential dichotomy A Separation explores is that of gender. The bitter and resentful man and wife whose stubborn rivalry causes a world of harm: it’s a tale as old as time. But A Separation gives it an international flavor that makes the whole discourse feel fresher and more vital. As multi-dimensional as its title, this slyly transgressive Iranian masterpiece depicts its nation’s greatest schisms and introduces Westerners to a world on the edge of transition, caught between customs and modernization, between liberty and oppression, all perfectly realized in the movie’s ambiguous final tableau. Back in the courthouse, we observe another two-shot of man and wife. The battle continues. The woman, now boxed in by a frame within a frame, is separated from her husband by a pane of glass. In Farhardi’s world, her desperate protestations have vilified and entrapped her. Maybe she was foolish for thinking they could have ever set her free.