A Separation (playing at the Kentucky Theatre) is a masterpiece, but it’s unassuming and unpretentious in a way that praise like that usually doesn’t suggest. It piles up one keenly observed but seemingly inconsequential detail after another, until you finally begin to realize that those details have actually been of great consequence indeed. The script by writer/director Asghar Farhadi creates a microcosm of an entire troubled society in the vein of films like Babel or Crash, but unlike those films, you never sense a puppeteer yanking strings and revealing absurd contrivances or overheated melodrama. You’d have to go back to Robert Altman to find a director who could make the creation of a grand national portrait like this look so easy.
The film starts with a couple in a small Iranian courtroom, where the audience not coincidentally sees the action from the judge’s point of view. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants a divorce so that she can leave Iran with the family’s 11-year-old daughter (Sarina Farhadi); Nader (Peyman Maadi) refuses to leave the country or let his wife do the same, because of his devotion to his Alzheimer’s-plagued father. The judge doesn’t grant the divorce, in part because he doesn’t deem the couple’s issue to be “important” enough, but also because he seems rankled by Simin’s implicit criticism of Iran (“I’d prefer my daughter didn’t grow up in these circumstances,” she says. “What circumstances?” asks the judge. There’s no reply). It’s a brief scene, but it contains everything that makes the film great. The writing crackles, illustrating complex moral problems with insight and dashes of humor. The visual style is simple and unadorned, but it speaks volumes in subtle ways1. And while there’s a political subtext coursing throughout the film, it never dominates the human drama – it’s a tangible but discreet background presence in the film’s ether.
Simin leaves to stay with her parents, forcing Nader to find a housekeeper that can care for his father. He finds Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a deeply religious, working-class woman desperate for the job, but not quite up to its demands. Not only does she have to bring along and care for her daughter while chasing around her senile, wandering-prone charge, she has to hide the fact that she has the job from her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), who wouldn’t approve her working for religious reasons and because of other concerns that soon become clear. A desperate Razieh makes a very bad decision soon enough, and when Nader finds out, his rage pushes him to a terrible decision of his own. It’s not long before we’re back in that courtroom, with these four characters trapped in a Rashomon-like courtroom thriller about who knew what when, who did what to whom, and who is lying right now. The separation from the first scene reveals here a series of separations that go far beyond a marital squabble – the wealthy in conflict with the poor, the bullheaded males in conflict with their conciliatory females, the secularists in conflict with the devout2.
It’s an ingenious scenario that Farhadi has crafted here, a moral and legal Gordian knot where every character deserves some blame but all remain sympathetic, and where the simple pleasantries and conversation of the film’s beginning end up serving as critical evidence upon which the rest of the film hinges (a second viewing revealed just how meticulously planned out and foreshadowed these seemingly throwaway segments really are). Nader and Razieh are steadfastly devoted to their own principles for the most part, but each holds a secret that is a glaring exception to their own rules. Simin is desperate to broker a cash settlement that would surely be the best thing for everyone involved – even though that means throwing ethical principles out of the window. And while Hodjat is the most dangerous character of them all – he’s unemployed, on anti-depressants, and prone to startling bursts of violence, though they’re usually self-directed – he is the only character who doesn’t attempt to lie to or deceive anyone. And through it all, the couple’s daughter looks on, thrust into adulthood as she learns about the square-peg-round-hole relationship between the strictness of law and the messiness of humanity.
A Separation certainly does face an uphill battle in getting seen. It’s hard enough for any foreign film to gain traction, let alone a downbeat Iranian3 drama, and the bland poster certainly doesn’t help4. But it’s a taut, impeccably constructed thriller that deserves as much attention as possible, even if only because in the current political climate, it’s worth noting the film’s unavoidable lesson that people are essentially the same everywhere – flawed, basically decent people doing their best to survive. There are some things about the theocracy in which the film takes place that will seem unfamiliar to audiences, but there’s enough that will feel thoroughly true and relatable – though it surely wasn’t conceived that way, perhaps this filmmaking masterwork will also serve as a form of olive branch.
1 By handing the viewer the role of judge in this shot, Farhadi also indicates that he will be avoiding any judgmental moralizing of his own – he’s an impartial observer of his own creation
2 This is the rare case where a changed English language title is better than the original – the Iranian title translated to the more literal “The Separation of Nader and Simin”.
3 Besides the whole political thing, Iranian films also generally have a reputation for being particularly cerebral and dry, as in much of the work of Abbas Kiarostami. Of course, A Separation is very much an exception to this trend!
4 The characters in it, with their off-center glances, seem less aggrieved about their restrictive society or their intractable legal problems than they are about whoever might be standing next to you looking at them.