Review: A Separation (2011)


Cast: Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Country: Iran
Genre: Drama
Official Trailer: Here

In the first sequence of Asghar Farhadi’s film, Nader and Simin: A Separation, husband and wife Nader and Simin face the camera and address an off-screen person of law with regards to his/her reasons for (not) wanting a divorce. She wants it, he does not. In one continuous take of several minutes, they voice their opinions. The one-shot scene ends but with nothing resolved: neither party budges from his/her position. At the film’s conclusion, the last sequence takes place in the same space, only this time the couple’s daughter Termeh is also present between them. In fact, it is Termeh who now faces the camera to address the off-screen judge and divulge with which parent she has chosen to stay. Her parents have given her the freedom—burden, rather—to decide. Like the first sequence, this concluding one and, with it, the final shot do not resolve the prevailing question.

For those who prefer to read the first and last pages of a book, the logic is that what happens in the beginning must perforce temper what happens in the end and everything between the two. On the one hand, such logic is not wholly applicable to A Separation. How the characters move from the first sequence to the last one in terms of plot and emotion has perhaps at most an oblique bearing on what actually transpires between the two. Put another way, the first and last sequences—like a literary prologue and epilogue—do not in any way hint as to what occurs in the time between them. For what at first glance looks to be an intimate story about the break-up of a marriage is an entomological examination of a cross-section of contemporary urban Iranian society, encompassing not only the lives of Nader, Simin, and Termeh but also those of their neighbours, employee and family, courts of law, teachers, schools, and creditors. As such, a marriage dissolving is but one among many things that demonstrate how deeply the public and private interpenetrate each other here—or how ‘public’ and ‘private’ are not so much opposing concepts than categories of self-censorship/surveillance, that is, being watched, judged, interrogated, either by many people (public) or a few persons (private). On the other hand, a dissolving marriage is the point of departure where the fine line between public and private interpenetrate each other, which then shapes the issues of the family unit and the betterment of one’s children’s future not only in the prologue and epilogue but also in all that comes between them.

When Simin leaves Nader to live with her mother for the time being, Nader hires a female careworker, Razieh, to watch over his Alzheimer’s-stricken father. One afternoon during her service, Nader and Termeh come home to find his father face down on the floor. Razieh and her little girl return, at which point Nader fires her and accuses her of stealing money. Both of their respective spouses get involved when Razieh has a miscarriage following her argument with Nader, which concluded when the latter pushed her out of the apartment. Nader then is charged with murder. All of these events are just the bare bones of the complex plot. Each event or kernel of information unlocks another one that requires everyone to reorient his/her stance vis-à-vis the rest and what had come before.

What makes A Separation a breathtaking work is that director/writer/producer Farhadi puts under the microscope the culture of procedure and law in which this mise-en-abîme spiral of community tensions and accusations takes place, first within a family and then spilling over to ever larger circles of people. He does so without demonising or mythifying anyone or making someone allegorical. The sole exception would be Nader’s father, a silent but ever mindful presence like one’s conscience. Under the microscope, Farhadi’s characters are all too human, with pride being the ultimate flaw that unites and separates them at the same time. Under the microscope, private and public relationships are laid bare down to the smallest molecule and vulnerable to the most unanticipated variable, reveling in Darwinian self-preservation. All the adults here dodge or are unable to cope with responsibility for their actions while their children are caught in the middle of this culture of procedure, law, paranoia, and pressure.

Once again, one would be hard-pressed to see where the line between public and private lies. For Nader, his father, Simin, and Termeh, their apartment is home and private. For Razieh, it is her place of employment and for the neighours and police a host to investigation for the details that may have led to Razieh’s miscarriage and charge of murder against Nader. On this note, it is also challenging to separate the politics of the interwoven stories—women’s rights, class conflict, clerical state laws, patriarchy, unemployment—from the film’s form since all are so well-constructed. But the blurring of public-private is echoed in the film’s tight framing of spaces indoors and outdoors, such that the division becomes immaterial. In indoor scenes, the camera sticks closely to faces, details of things and spaces, so that Nader and Simin’s apartment for instance feels densely populated and even cluttered, though clearly it is not. In outdoor scenes, the camera stubbornly sticks within the frame of car windows, windshields, and rearview mirrors, all of which multiply the film frame. This multiplication of the film frame then also further boxes up the characters and their connections to each other, as in a kind of rat maze of who-did-what-to-whom only to always end up in a dead end of denial or lies.

After all of these things, the intense irony of the film’s title should be evident. After viewing the film, the flawless performance of the ensemble cast led by Leila Hatami (Simin), Peyman Moadi (Nader), Sarina Farhadi (Termeh), Sareh Bayat (Razieh), and Shahab Hosseini (Hodjat) should also be evident. Most evident of all: A Separation—with its intricately woven narrative whose emotional force arises organically, even stealthily—is shatteringly brilliant.

[notification type=”star”]99/100 ~ MASTERFUL. A Separation—with its intricately woven narrative whose emotional force arises organically, even stealthily—is shatteringly brilliant.[/notification]


About Author

Film lecturer at CSULB. Transnational, multilingual, migratory cinephilia.