Iranian cinema is critically acclaimed across the world, and A Separation is the latest movie from that country to get lots of positive press. The film has already scooped up awards at film festivals (the Golden Bear at Berlin & Best Movie in Sydney) and is already being tipped for entry into the fray for the biggest of the lot: the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s easy to see why.
Like most Iranian films, A Separation seems a long way from Hollywood blockbusters, but the film is still utterly engrossing. Hopefully it will bring Iranian films their widest audience yet and win some serious Oscar glory. The film doesn’t have any action-flick bangs or even soaring melodrama to help it along, however the zippy, engrossing pace has been compared to Hitchcock who is surely Hollywood par excellence. But it is probably its vision of humanity that A Separation really excels.
From the perspective of Western Europe, Iran is perplexing. The country has an educated middle class who we saw trying to force changes upon the theocratic elite a few years ago, but those same Imams and Ayatollahs minister to a large and devout mass. This great gap is one of the key themes that the film addresses.
The Farsi title of the film translates as Nader and Simin, A Separation, and Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a middle class Tehran couple with a ten year old daughter. It starts with Simin leaving her husband for a trial separation, she wants to quit Iran for a fresh start in a different country and her husband refuses to follow her. Nader is stubborn, but he also has a father with Alzheimer’s Disease who he does not want to leave. With his wife living back at her parents, Nader is compelled to employ a hired help, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to look after the old man while they both go to work.
The devout Razieh has a long bus journey to get to her employer’s home, while Nader and Simin each have a car. Razieh is poor, in fact, her husband is seriously in debt. She also doesn’t want Nader to tell her husband that she is working for a man who lives without a wife. Razieh’s husband is religious, in the old fashioned mould, and wouldn’t approve. When an unfortunate incident occurs, the scene is thus set for a clash between two couples, two social classes and two approaches to life.
A Separation keeps it real. This film is not afraid of unnerving its audience by placing a large silent man with Alzheimer’s Disease at the heart of the action. Disease and infirmity are unsettling, but it forms a natural part of the narrative – there is nothing mawkish regarding this poor man’s condition. Likewise, the incident at the heart of the plot is believable and, as in real life, it is not clear who is to blame, if indeed anyone is.
We may associate the religion of Iran with an extremely black and white approach to moral issues, but this film has a great deal of moral compassion. All the characters are extremely human: flawed, but thoroughly sympathetic. Asghar Farhadi, the director, has said that, “the confrontation between these two women is not that of good versus bad. They are simply two clashing visions of good. And that is where, in my opinion, modern tragedy resides.” That tragedy is very moving.
The film microscopically examines the character of its key players, while leaving them with the dignity and ultimate inscrutability they deserve. This is achieved through first rate acting, and that goes for the four main adults, the two children and even grandpa. Despite staying silent for the whole film, you never doubt that Ali Asghar Shahbazi, who plays Nader’s father, has Alzheimer’s.
Finally, we are not left with an indictment of Iranian society, but a rich portrait of two families dealing with the contradictions of all our lives. Razieh, the hired help, might occasionally be forced into positions that seem slightly odd to us, but she is certainly no fool. Absurdity is, after all, universal.
A Separation is an extremely sophisticated and subtle film, so much so that it is difficult to do it justice. Just watch it hoover up Oscars.
A Separation is released on 1 July.
Read our review of another entrant into the Oscars for Best Film in a Foreign Language: In Darkness.