A Separation

Cast:
Peyman Maadi as Nader
Leila Hatami as Simin
Sareh Bayat as Razieh
Shahab Hosseini as Hodjat
Sarina Farhadi as Termeh
Merila Zare’i as Miss Ghahraii
Ali-Asghar Shahbazi as Nader’s Father
Babak Karimi as Interrogator
Kimia Hosseini as Somayeh
Shirin Yazdanbakhsh as Simin’s Mother
Sahabanu Zolghadr as Azam

Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Story:
Nader and Simin (Peyman Maadi, Leila Hatami) are going through a divorce, so she can go to America, though he needs to stay in Iran to watch over his Alzheimer’s-stricken father; the custody of their 11-year-old daughter Termeh lays in the balance. When Nader hires a maid (Sareh Bayat) to watch his father while at work, her background from poverty and a lifestyle based on faith leads to an altercation with Nader that grows progressively worse as others become involved.

Analysis:
Anyone who has never seen a film from Iran and are looking to expand their horizons may find Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” to be the perfect entry point to the cinema of a country whose cultural differences with the United States has often led to conflicts and misunderstandings. Even so, those are also things worth bearing in mind while watching this film about domestic squabbles turned litigious because it adds another level, not that it needs it because Farhadi’s follow-up to “About Elly” is already quite rich in its storytelling.

The good thing is that you don’t need to know a thing about Iran to be pulled into a story that deals with so many things that will easily be familiar to Westerners, although the film isn’t as much about a divorce as the opening scene might make it seem. Instead, it’s about what happens after the split between Nader and Simin, a middle-class married couple with an 11-year-old daughter, which makes up the bulk of the story, which comes out of him hiring a maid to watch his aging Alzheimer’s-stricken father. She comes from a troubled background with a violent unemployed husband suffering from depression, their impoverished state forcing her to take a job she knows may conflict with her religion.

That’s the set-up for what eventually turns into a complex drama full of twists and turns as a violent incident becomes the center of an argument that gets the law involved and throws further turmoil into Nader’s troubled domestic life. Then again, we see from the opening scene that Nader is quite hot-tempered and it’s that lack of emotional control that tends to be his undoing as his anger creates an altercation with his diminutive maid, who is already on edge that she’s committing a sin by being in the house with a man not her husband.

“A Separation” isn’t a simple movie, nor is it easy to talk about it without taking away from the enjoyment of watching the various layers of the story unfold naturally. The implications of the central incident and how things escalate is what drives the next 90 minutes of the film, which is all about repercussions to one’s actions and who is to blame for what happened. Even though much of this involves a lot of arguing, it’s also the type of movie you’ll really feel the need to focus and watch intently because every line of dialogue means something later. It forces the viewer into the position of being an impartial juror and if you miss even a single moment you’re left unsure about whose side to take. This isn’t necessarily a story about Iran, but that environment is just as crucial as the way Chile is used in the films by Sebastian Silva (“The Maid”), delving into the local class system and how the poor feel they can’t get a fair trial.

More than anything, what one gets from watching “A Separation” is what an incredibly talented filmmaker Farhadi is for taking a fairly simple storyline and make it so much more compelling with its naturalistic dialogue unimpeded by any sort of music or score. The film’s also shot in such a distinctive way to make the drama more effective. Every single role in the film has been filled with perfect casting making every single part just as important as the next from Nader all the way down to the adorable little girl who plays the maid’s daughter. Generally, the women tend to have the meatier roles, maybe because the men often seem angry and unreasonable by comparison.

Throughout all of it, the failure of this marriage is constantly played down. As sad as it is that this couple of 14 years is going their separate ways, it’s rarely discussed after the opening, as much as it’s something you sense by the look of sadness in her eyes or the crack in her voice when they speak. It’s clear she’d rather stay with him but he’s far too stubborn to go with her and it breaks her heart. The stakes are higher for Nader, who is desperately trying to retain his daughter’s respect and convince her of his innocence, already afraid of losing her if she goes to America with his wife. This is escalated by both their paranoia about the behavior of the maid’s husband, who makes Nader seem calm by comparison. Even so, he’s thrown in jail while the authorities try to figure out who is right and who is wrong, complicated with further developments as more people are brought in to add their two cents.

Eventually, the film gets back to the question of whether Nader’s daughter will stay with him or go to America with her mother, and it’s the most frustrating aspect of the film, not because you never get an answer, but because Farhadi deliberately builds up that decision even after it’s no longer particularly important to the story. Still, it leads to a poignant and thought-provoking ending, even if it makes the framing device of a marriage falling apart feel even more like a red herring than it did previously.

The Bottom Line:
Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” is a brilliant piece of storytelling that plays out as far more than just the simple domestic drama it pretends to be, filled with subliminally veiled statements on the country’s religion, class system and gender issues that add up to something with far more layers and levels than can be fully absorbed in a single viewing.

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