It’s not uncommon for film snobs (I sadly include myself in that category) to automatically assume that most celebrated foreign cinema is superior to American films receiving the same type of accolades. Other nations (especially the French, Swedish, and Italians) show a thematic and stylistic boundary-pushing drive that are only present in America’s most experimental film-makers (Lynch, Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz, etc). 9 times out of 10, American films are only willing to go so close to the edge before they pull back for an adult, honest examination of the way the world really works. An Iranian film would be the first foreign nation I’d choose for a mature and intellectually honest examination of tough moral issues considering the theocratic nature of the country’s regime. If last year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner, A Separation, is any indication of Iranian cinema, I clearly haven’t been giving the country the respect it deserves.
Similar to another wonderful (but criminally underlooked) film from 2011, Margaret, director Asghar Farhadi’s film A Separation is a meditation on guilt, responsibility, and family. Strong-willed Iranian wife Simin (Leila Hatami) wishes to divorce her husband Nader (Peyman Noadi). Nader is a relatively progressive man who has never mistreated her. In fact, Simin still loves her husband very much. But, she wants to take her daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), out of Iran to have a better life. Her husband wouldn’t mind and would likely go with Simin, but his father is in the terminal stages of Alzheimers, and he won’t leave him behind. Nader won’t force his wife to stay with him (which he would be allowed to do under sharia law which is what Iran has), but he won’t let Simin take their daughter away, and the departure of his wife has unforeseen consequences.
Nader must work to support himself and his daughter. Since she is in the sixth grade and he believes in her receiving a proper education (as I said, Nader is a fairly modern man for his culture), neither his daughter nor Nader himself can stay at home to look after his father. He hires another Muslim woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to care for his father while he works. Because she wears the full-body hijab (the head scarves but in this case covering the whole body), it is not readily apparent that Razieh is actually several months pregnant. One day, Razieh ties Nader’s father to his bed and runs some errands. Nader returns before she does and finds his father nearly dead as well as some money missing. In a fit of anger, Nader accuses Razieh of theft and throws her out of his home for neglecting his father. However, she falls down the stairs and has a miscarriage, and Nader is brought to trial for the potential murder of Razieh’s unborn child. The court has to determine whether he knew Razieh was pregnant and whether his pushing her was what caused the miscarriage in the first place.
This is one of those films where a simple plot description barely begins to scratch the surface of the various thematic implications of this film. At a basic level, it’s a film about one man’s trial for manslaughter and whether he had a substantive enough role in the death of the fetus to be found guilty of a crime. But as the movie’s events continue to unfurl, it’s quickly apparent that the film has bigger statements to make. I don’t want to spoil any of the major twists in the film because a lot of the joy of the film is watching its various thematic threads unravel til you see the final picture, but it’s a movie about our inability to responsibility for our own actions, whether the rigidity of the criminal justice system (under strict sharia law or more generally) actually serves meaningful justice, and about the rationalizations we make to justify our own actions.
A Separation is a terrifically acted film on all fronts. Although most of the film’s promotional materials seem to give Leila Hatami nearly equal (or front) billing with Peyman Noadi, Nader is the real main character of the film, and it’s his moral struggles over the course of the movie that are we most meant to identify with. I have serious problems with patriarchal societies, and although I appreciate and really like many aspects of Islam, I can’t stand theocratic societies of any religious stripe. So, my ability to sympathize so fully with a man like Nader is a testament both to the writing as well as Noadi’s performance. You see his love for his wife and his daughter clashing with his unwillingness to force her to stay as well as his stubbornness to fight for her (which she wants). You see how well he convinces himself and others that he has no responsibility for Reziah’s unborn child’s death even when it becomes clear that things aren’t that simple.
The supporting performances also dazzle. Shahab Hosseini nearly steals the entire film as Reziah’s quick-tempered husband, Hojjat. It’s not easy playing the villain of a piece (though it would probably be inaccurate to call Hojjat a villain), but if you can cross the cultural barriers and understand the society that would produce a man like Hojjat, Shahab Hosseini’s performance seems to define an entire cross-section of middle eastern masculinity. Sarina Farhadi is great as Termeh, Nader’s daughter who is caught not only in the crossfire of her parents’ disintegrating marriage but also the moral ambiguity of knowing that not everything her father has been telling the court is true. It’s a tough role for a young actress, but Sarina shines. Sareh Bayat also turns in a fine performance as the emotionally damaged Reziah whose whole world is turned upside down even though she has her own secrets to hide.
The movie loses its nerve a little bit by the end, and while the first 4/5 of the film promise a resolution cloaked in moral ambiguity, the actual delivery seems cheapened through a simpler answer. Don’t let that very minor quibble deter you from watching one of the best films of last year. This film should have been nominated for Best Picture. Lord knows it was better than The Artist and that’s not getting into the trio of films (War Horse, The Help, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) that were outright bad. It’s really a shame that the Academy so rarely nominates foreign language films for Best Picture. I may be incorrect but I think the last one was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. If you like foreign cinema and can appreciate films with a morally complex web of tales, A Separation is most surely for you.
Final Score: A