A few years ago, I found myself at fault in a car accident on my evening commute. On a congested highway on the way home from work, I looked (I admit rather stupidly) to the right to observe another accident that had happened just moments before my own. Clearly, my desire to gawk took precedence over the moving van slamming on its breaks right in front of me. Nobody got hurt, save for my ego and my wallet, but the reason I bring it up is because the days following the accident left me racking my brain over the little things I might have done to prevent it – some within my control, some not. “If only I’d left work a half hour sooner,” I thought to myself. “If only that jackass hadn’t gotten into that accident before me!” Needless to say, I knew how absurd my feeble attempts at rationalizing my actions were; I knew the both my circumstances and choices had inevitably led to unpleasant consequences.
We see a great deal of similar rationalizing in A Separation, the new film from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. The movie depicts a series of tragic events and circumstances that culminate, with a construction not unlike a Rube Goldberg machine, from a single event: the titular legal separation between estranged spouses Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami). Characters in the film frequently assign blame, yet are ill-prepared either to accept it or the consequences their poor choices precede. A Separation is a complexly woven tale of those flawed choices, their consequences, and the individuals who stand to lose so much in the wake of their aftermath. Fortunately, unlike the misery porn of directors who typically inhabit this kind of material, like Iñarritu and Von Trier, Farhadi’s approach is far more subdued and far less punishing. Few will manage to resist embracing it.
A Separation opens with a beautifully staged single-shot scene of the affluent husband Nader and wife Simin appealing before a judge to grant her the divorce that he resists giving. Simin wishes to move to America, yet Nader – who is also chief caretaker of his Alzheimer-stricken father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) – declines to join her. The actual reason Nader refuses to offer his wife a divorce is ostensibly to protect their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) from being forced to uproot her life in Tehran. The judge, whose face the camera never actually shows, sides with Nader and refuses to indulge Simin her divorce, on grounds that she has not given sufficient reason to end the marriage.
Simin moves out nonetheless, leaving Nader to tend to his father and Termeh. The newly single patriarch goes on to hire Razieh (Sareh Bayat) a poor religious woman pregnant with her second child, to care after Nader’s father while he works. When a thoughtless decision on the overwhelmed Razieh’s part results in the injury of the elderly man, compounded by Nader’s suspicions that she has been stealing from him, Nader is provoked to violently cast the pregnant woman from his doorstep. The way the scene is shot and edited is noticeably evasive, rendering what exactly happened to Razieh after she was jettisoned from Nader’s home less than perfectly clear.
We soon learn this was a deliberate choice on writer/director Farhadi’s part; the next day, Simin learns that Razieh had apparently been hospitalized following the incident, sustaining an injury that resulted in the miscarriage of her child. The remainder of the film covers the precipitating legal tumult between the two families, as Razieh is charged with theft and Nader is charged with murder.
If my synopsis makes A Separation sound overstuffed or miserably overwrought, then surely I’ve done a disservice to the uncommon elegance and deftness of Farhadi’s script. Aside from that very first scene focusing on Razieh and Nader – which, despite its effective execution, comes close to feeling like feels like it’s setting up an entirely different movie – practically no other screenplay this year feels so flawlessly constructed and so effortlessly layered to invite numerous interpretations.
On a very superficial level, A Separation operates perfectly well as a fraught legal drama between warring families. As secrets and hidden motivations begin to reveal themselves, as alliances both within and between families begin to waver, and as the alleged facts begin to lose their clarity, the truth of what exactly happened between Razieh and Nader finally becomes clear. Neither party comes out with their integrity wholly unblemished. In some ways, Farhadi molds his story as a well-crafted whodunit, carefully dispersing crucial bits of dialogue and visual hints earlier in the film, planting the seeds for future payoff. Not one moment of this 124-minute film – not even that first scene I mildly criticized earlier – feels even a little unnecessary.
But the real boldness of A Separation, and the reason I am even surprised this film made it out of a country so notorious for its draconian treatment of filmmakers, is that the narrative seems so deeply rooted, and not uncritically, in what I imagine is the quotidian milieu of life in Tehran. Many of the conflicts depicted in the movie base themselves on implied truths about inequality between class, gender and other social strata.
Would events unfold precisely as they do had that judge from the very first scene accepted Simin’s petition to leave her husband? Perhaps not, but taking into account how the patriarchal legal system (I believe this is Farhadi’s implied assertion; not my own) is less likely to grant a woman her divorce when her husband refuses, an outcome favorable to the wife would be less likely. Would Razieh, an inaffluent woman whose husband is chronically indebted and unable to find steady work, have even held on to job taking care of an Alzheimer’s patient – a job for which she is clearly unqualified – had her means of income been so limited? Certainly not, but the expecting mother of two is desperate to make ends meet. Would the stakes of the charges against Nader have been so high had a society not established its rules on religious guidelines, thereby interpreting his alleged assault on an unborn child explicitly as a murder? Of course not, but that makes no difference, since those are the circumstances.
That Farhadi renders (what I believe to be) his thesis on Iranian life so implicit that it evaded the same government who imprisons countless others for their own artistic expression speaks not only to his nuance as a filmmaker and a storyteller, but his potency as a social commentator.
But what makes A Separation truly great is not merely its impeccable construction or its ability to frame its narrative as a microcosm of a particular society. The feelings its characters evoke and the sensibilities it elicits are likely to resonate with so many of us, regardless of our nationality, our gender or our economic disposition. For me, even if the stakes weren’t as high, the film brought me back to the day of that car accident, and the irrational feeling that circumstances could have been changed to prevent an unfortunate event that resulted in the destruction of property, the shattering of my pride, the irritation of the men I hit and the subsequent emptying of my wallet. Yet I know so many of those circumstances were beyond either my control or beyond my foresight. Life proceeds regardless of the decisions I make and the circumstances I help create, because so much of life is comprised of circumstances and choices determined by countless others. Like the characters in A Separation, I can rationalize what happens in my life as defiantly as I want, but how far will that take me until, like those characters, I have no choice but to stop rationalizing and to move forward?
Bottom Line: Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is a well acted, meticulously written, and stunningly orchestrated film that is at once beautifully subdued and emotionally potent.