Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
Originally published on January 21, 2012 on the website of The National Board of Review.
A Separation is a small powerful film by director Asghar Farhadi that tells the story of personal choices faced by a family living in modern day Iran. The film has been compared to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which in 1950 famously explored a murder from five perspectives, including that of a spirit. Like Kurosawa’s film A Separation is the story of how one unfortunate event affects many people but is almost exclusively restricted to the experiences of a middle class family – father, wife, grandfather and daughter. At numerous times, Farhadi, who wrote and directed, uses a very effective and somewhat unusual technique to create empathy for the family – a technique that Kurosawa exploited fully in his own film. A Separation opens with a shot that goes on for a number of minutes. Simin (played by Leila Hatami) and her husband Nader (played by Peyman Moadi) sit in a small office facing the camera, which has become the point of view of an authority figure who will decide if a divorce will be granted. She explains that she wants to take custody of their high-school-age daughter and leave Iran. He explains that his wife must stay to help take care of his sick father. The couple argue their case to the judge (and the audience) and we find ourselves thrust into the role of both judge and jury. We are in the middle of a complicated relationship between two intelligent and passionate people – and want to know more about who is “right” or “wrong”.
A Separation is an extremely well crafted screenplay that builds suspense by creating an evolving and volatile domestic situation in which something clearly has to give (there is a 40 day deadline before the visas to leave Iran expire). The situation is made all the more unbearable by the literal and metaphorical weight that hangs around the family’s shoulders – they must find a way to take care of the husband’s almost completely helpless father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. I could follow the screenplay from the brilliant setup through the believable and quite organic story complications – but that would spoil the viewing for the many folks who have not seen the film yet. There is so much that is authentic and moving in the way that characters come together – specifically the way that the hiring of Razeh, a woman meant to watch Nader’s father, leads to a series of events that hurt everyone involved. The acting is strong and direct. Leila Hatami portrays Simin with a single conviction – to convince her family, and the judge, that she may leave Iran with her daughter. Peyman Moadi’s Nader – torn between his love of father and responsibilities to his wife and daughter – is a man caught between anger, compassion, and duty. He is also a mystery – it is unclear whether he is being cheap by not hiring qualified help for his father or whether he really is so short of money that this is not possible. Sarina Farhadi’s depiction of Termeh, their daughter, (in real life the daughter of director Asghar Farhadi), is in some ways the biggest revelation of the film. She embraces the character with an innocence that is clearly destined to crash against the rocks of life’s brutal and rocky waters. Her reaction shots reveal the toll that is being exacted on her like slow-drip water torture. There are no easy truths in the film, and even though we are restricted to the lives of Simin and Nader’s family we also begin to understand and appreciate the “antagonists” in the story – Razeh (Sareh Bayat), her hot-headed husband Hodjat, and their quiet daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini). As the motivations of each person are revealed the meaning of “right” and “wrong” becomes more and more elusive.
The sound design of A Separation is remarkable – the complete absence of soundtrack music or audio effects of any kind offers no distance or respite from the world of the film. Without a musical score, or even motifs for characters or places, we are left completely on our own as we grapple with the acceleration of events and our feelings concerning their impact on the lives of the characters. Like Rashomon, we begin to understand a terrible event from an ever widening perspective – two couples, their children, the extended family, friends of the family, the people they work with, the authorities who hold the ultimate power of judgment. A Separation is an intensely realistic and believable interpretation of the Kafkaesque absurdities that infiltrate every level of society and culture.
Using a natural and realistic directing style, director Asghar Farhadi has found a nearly perfect way to bring his superbly written script to the screen. A Separation is a realistic story of personal struggle within the bureaucracy and religious society of Iran that also feels universal in its depiction of family conflict. The film richly deserves the still accumulating accolades it has received. It is assured and bold filmmaking – a critical success that is also selling tickets through word of mouth. Neither a heartwarming or action-oriented story – the film is essentially what the title suggests, a story about two people breaking up. Which is like saying that The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is about a kinky relationship. There is much more going on – and the details are what make the experience so deeply rewarding.