Nader and Simin have been married for over a decade. They have an eleven-year-old daughter, Termeh, and also live with Nader’s father, who suffers from severe Alzheimer’s and needs round-the-clock care. The couple is solidly middle-class, with a well-furnished apartment, two cars, and apparently steady employment. When Simin insist they leave the country for the sake of their daughter’s future, and Nader refuses to join her, Simin files for divorce.

Simin and Nader discuss their divorce proceedings.

The story that follows focuses not just on the dissolution of their marriage, but manages to touch on issues of religion, sexual politics, class divides, generational gaps, justice and honesty. And what’s more, it does so in such a convincing manner that it feels wholly organic to the world these characters inhabit, virtually never betraying a sense of contrivance or overt politicizing. At the same time, it doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable issues, but the manner in which its characters’ lives intersect, and their differing perspective on issues of the utmost importance, denies the audience easy answers.

When Simin moves out of the couple’s apartment to stay with her parents, Nader is forced to hire a caretaker for his father. Simin is able to put Nader in touch with a young woman, Razieh, who comes from poverty and is desperate for work due to the continued unemployment of her husband, Hodjat. Razieh is deeply religious, and her faith is put to the test almost immediately when Nader’s father soils himself and she must help to clean him. And with her attention split by her own young daughter, whom Razieh brings to the apartment every day, it proves to be more demanding than she initially expected, and for relatively meager pay given the demands.

Later, when the pregnant Razieh is forced to leave the apartment for an urgent matter, she leaves Nader’s father alone with his wrist tied to the bed. Nader comes home to find his father barely alive, struggling on the floor and bruised from his fall. He angrily confronts Razieh when she returns, and even accuses her of stealing her wages when he finds an amount of money equivalent to her pay missing from a drawer. With nowhere to go, and with her reputation at stake, Razieh refuses to leave, but Nader, in a fit of anger, shoves her out of his door. Later, he discovers from Simin that Razieh has been taken to the hospital, having suffered a miscarriage.

I’ll touch on the twists and turns the plot takes in the following sections, but what’s most impressive about A Separation – and it blows my mind that this went from conception to premiere in about a year – is how effortlessly it adds layer upon layer to its already emotionally complex story without ever losing sight of the important issues. It juggles so many balls in the air and never threatens to drop any of them. Among the issues it deals with:

Sexual politics and gender roles

When Nader and Simin are discussing their divorce in the opening scene with a judge, the biggest issue at stake is the fate of Termeh. Nader insists that Termeh would rather stay with him in her home country, while Simin insists that Nader can have everything if he’ll just let her take her daughter with her abroad for a brighter future. Nader, however, cannot leave due to his father’s condition. As soon as Simin moves out, it’s apparent to what extent she was the homemaker of the family, with Nader struggling to perform basic tasks such as doing the laundry and tasking Termeh with keeping the house clean and organized. To his credit, Nader is more than happy to assist Termeh with her homework, but certainly he lacks a motherly touch. And Simin, for her part, while taking a firm stance with Termeh every step of the way, clearly has her shit together, asserting herself throughout the film and lending a helping hand in every possible situation.

With Razieh and Hodjat, the relationship is testier. Financial issues have put them both at their wit’s end, and their relationship is greatly strained, with Hodjat’s pride suffering over his inability to be a provider for his wife and daughter, and Razieh meek and ashamed about taking on work behind her husband’s back. And while Simin and Nader, for all their struggles, are able to consistently engage in open and (uncomfortably) honest dialogue with each other, letting their feelings be known in the plainest terms but doing their best to never let spite or emotion cloud their judgment, Razieh and Hodjat are quite the opposite. Hodjat is as temperamental as they come, prone to outbursts and minor acts of violence (though he never lays a hand on Razieh that we see), and Razieh, due to her husband’s hypermasculine pride, must sneak around in attempting to provide for the couple and their daughter financially, knowing that it would be a blow both to his ego and his sense of marital fidelity. If Simin and Nader are the picture of a give-and-take relationship (albeit one whose health is suffering), Razieh and Hodjat are far more old-fashioned.

In many ways, the essential theme of the film is the male tendency to pride and stubbornness in the face of mounting difficulties and complexity. For all his honesty with others, Nader has a more difficult time being honest with himself, refusing to relent when faced with increasingly mounting evidence that he’s in the wrong – or at least that he has reason to doubt the firmness of his convictions. He and Hodjat are two sides of the same coin, but whereas Nader has Simin to guide him with a strong hand and temper his tendency towards masculine pride, Razieh is less able to curb the destructive tendencies of Hodjat.

Class divisions

One could argue that their ability to be so honest with each other is, in some way, a privilege conferred upon Simin and Nader due to their well-being. Simin has secured a Visa for the family, giving them the latitude to pick up and head for greener pastures should they commit; and both Simin and Nader have stable and evidently well-paying jobs. (Which isn’t to say they live like kings, but they’re not struggling to make ends meet.) In short: Simin has a safety net that so many are not fortunate to have, so she can be brutally honest with her husband because of the equity of power in their relationship and the support of her parents. Simin is assertive, confident, and helpful almost to a fault.

Razieh doesn’t have that same luxury. Of the many torments the characters in this film suffer, Razieh’s is probably the most difficult – or at least, the most high-stakes. The stress of her job in concert with her fragile physical state wears her down quickly, leading her to doubt her ability to carry on. In addition, the aforementioned religious concerns of caring so intimately for another man leave Razieh deeply conflicted about her role as a wife, caregiver, and in general an Islamic woman in contemporary Iran. When Hodjat discovers that his wife has been working behind his back – and in the home of another man, at that – he is furious, taking it as an affront to his masculinity. His combination of stubborn pride and perpetual unemployment has led to a certain amount of overcompensation; no longer able to assert his manhood by being a provider, his temper kicks into overdrive.

When Nader, midway through the film, finds himself charged with murder for his purported role in Razieh’s miscarriage, he finds himself in the position of risking prison or paying an enormous settlement (which the characters refer to in no uncertain terms as blood money). And just like that, both sides find themselves balancing their own principles against the issue of money, amounts which could single-handedly pull Razieh and Hodjat out of the hole they’ve dug themselves into with their debtors – and, likewise, amounts which would threaten the ability of Nader to remain gainfully employed – or Simin to remain independent – with his father unable to be cared for.

Truth, half-truths and justice

The biggest issue at stake with regards to Nader’s culpability in Razieh’s miscarriage is his level of knowledge. That is: was he aware the second-trimester Razieh was pregnant in the first place, whether by appearance or by conversation? But the film deals not just with the issue of whether Nader knew, but whether Simin or Termeh or Razieh or several others knew that he knew. In other words, it’s his word against theirs, and it’s practically impossible for us to say. The film layers in its minor details so carefully that actions of minor import – or ostensible surface importance – end up rippling outwards so that later, when we get a greater look at the big picture, it hits us like a bolt of lightning.

At one point, Termeh tells Nader that Simin claimed he was aware of Razieh’s pregnancy. In addition to wondering how Simin could ever know such a thing, Nader claims that Simin is simply trying to turn Termeh against him, so that she can live with her abroad. And such is the relationship between these three characters that each side seems equally plausible. It helps that each and every character is drawn fully three-dimensional, never reduced to being a plot device for another character to work off of, or a one-dimensional antagonist. In that regard, it cultivates ambivalence like few films I can think of, in that your loyalties are deeply split every step of the way due to the utter empathy each character deserves. When Nader tells Termeh that he had no idea Razieh was pregnant, we want to believe him, because we don’t want to think that this fundamentally decent and hard-working man could ever be responsible for something so terrible; but at the same time, we don’t want to believe that Simin would use her daughter, for whom she has done so much, as a pawn in her own game of relationship chess.

And even setting aside the issue of who’s telling the truth and who isn’t, these notions of right and wrong run up into the justice system, which complicates things that much more. If Nader knew that Razieh was pregnant, does that make him a murderer? He barely laid a hand on her. If he is in fact culpable, does he deserve to go to jail, with a senile and helpless father relying on him every second of every day just to survive? Does Razieh’s own involvement with Nader’s father’s injuries make her negligent or just frazzled under a tremendously stressful burden? It’s not enough to be right or wrong when jail and money come into the mix.

Religion

Razieh and Hodjat are shown throughout the film to be deeply and overtly religious, consulting their Korans on day-to-day matters (with Razieh going to far as to call a religious hotline in a moment of minor crisis) and invoking the name of God as an arbiter of truth. But while they may be the most devout of the film’s characters, when Hodjat confronts Nader with the notion that he doesn’t believe in God, Nader cuts him down, sarcastically stating “No, God is only for people like you.”

Razieh and Hodjat’s devotion is never in doubt – at no time do they seem anything less than sincere in their praise of God – but Hodjat is more than willing to use his devotion as a badge of pride, conferring upon himself the status of a true believer and sneering at those whose religiosity ostensibly doesn’t run as deep as his own. Razieh, for her own part, is much meeker and chaste in this regard, turning to God in times of crisis and fearing for the lives and well-being of her family and the terrible consequences that sin could have. When this devotion to God runs up against her ambivalence about Nader’s responsibility for her miscarriage, she suffers a severe crisis. And when the financial issues are thrown into the mix, and her husband’s pride (and possibly freedom from debtor’s jail) is at stake, it becomes unbearably agonizing for her.

Parent-child relationships

And what of poor Termeh in this mess? Torn between two parents on the verge of divorce, forced to arbitrate their relationship and help to care for the housekeeping and well-being of her grandfather, this is a tremendous hardship for any person, let alone an eleven-year-old girl. She’s essentially forced into the position of choosing which parent she loves more. And her parents use her as a conduit for messages both explicit and implicit, trying to convince her that they’re each the one in the right.

This comes to a head late in the film. Termeh has been drawing attention at school for the scandal her father has become embroiled in, along with the harrassment Hodjat has thrown her way, stalking outside school grounds to confront her and Nader and getting into a shouting match with Termeh’s tutor, who studies with Termeh at home and is a witness in the investigation of Razieh’s miscarriage. Simin confronts Nader at their home and insists Nader pay Razieh and Hodjat to clear up this mess, if only for the sake of their daughter, but Nader stubbornly refuses. All their conflicting feelings come bubbling to the surface, as this hot-button issue becomes a jump-off point for another debate on their separation and their roles as husband, wife, father and mother.

This is to say nothing of Razieh and Hodjat’s own daughter, who is in subtler ways manipulated by adults at several points throughout the film for purposes of information about the case; nor Razieh and Hodjat’s miscarried child. When Simin’s mother states at the police station that it’s not as if the two had lost their eighteen-year-old son at Nader’s hands, it’s easy to see where she’s coming from, but of what consolation is that to Razieh and Hodjat?

And of course, there’s the issue of Nader’s father, who is practically infantile in his advanced stage of Alzheimer’s. Nader must change and shower him, feed him, help him to and from the bed, and so on; when he breaks down crying on his father’s shoulder, you can feel his utter helplessness. A Separation flips the notions of responsibility between parent and child on their head, with Termeh and Nader providing for their own parents in ways that no child ever hopes to have to.


This is to say nothing of the film’s aesthetic principles, which build upon the same sort of intimate, handheld, naturalistic cinematography that was a staple of John Cassavetes films; the uniformly excellent performances from the principals, which are essential in establishing each character as a fully-realized and empathetic individual; the subtle score by Sattar Oraki, which only draws attention to itself in the film’s final moments in a brilliant closing touch by Farhadi; or the brilliant structure of the screenplay, which juggles the above themes within the confines of a humanist tale without ever losing the thread. In concept and in execution, it’s a virtually flawless film, the only complaint to be had perhaps the slight contrivance of the proceedings. But Farhadi is such a skilled storyteller, knowing exactly which information to withhold and when to reveal it, that it never feels that way.

But what it all comes back to is the relationship between Simin and Nader. Married for 14 years, if it’s hard to feel the love between them, the respect the two have for each other is omnipresent, and the shifting power dynamics between the two with regards to each other and to Termeh makes it impossible to ever conclusively pick a side. But if there’s a lack of romantic intimacy between the two, there’s still some sort of spark that makes them argue so passionately, and which drives Simin to throw her full weight behind Nader in his time of trouble. It’s that mutual respect, unfettered and totally un-histrionic, which helps to make each character’s history with each other feel so deeply realized, and thus the brutal honesty of each towards the other so painful to witness. That Farhadi was able to so brilliantly sketch this relationship makes A Separation well worth seeing on its own; that he was able to subtly fold in so many resonant and beautifully realized themes without preaching – while at the same time taking care never to shy away from being utterly honest – is what makes it a masterpiece.

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