Review: A Separation Wrings Tension Out of Good Intentions

It all begins with an unstoppable force meeting an unmovable object. After pursuing a visa for months, Simin (Leila Hatami) is ready to leave Iran for a less oppressive nation. However, her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), refuses to either leave behind or transplant his Alzheimer’s afflicted father and will not give Simin the necessary custody of their young daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi).

The characters plead their cases to the camera – and, effectively, the viewer – before an unseen judge declines her request for an otherwise amicable divorce. “My finding is that your problem is a small problem,” the man insists, but in the world of Asghar Farhadi’s quietly brilliant A Separation, small problems like these carry substantial ramifications.

Finding themselves at an impasse, Simin moves out, and while Termeh remains behind out of a naïve hope that they’ll reconcile on her behalf, Nader proceeds with finding an alternate caretaker for his father, settling on short notice for a friend of a friend, the devoutly religious Razieh (Sareh Bayat). She takes the job without her husband’s knowledge – Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) may be proud, but he’s also unemployed and deep in debt – while continually questioning if her religion permits her to care for a man to whom she is not married, however unwell he may be.

From there, the best intentions of all involved backfire in gut-knotting fashion, and the less one knows going in, the better. Farhadi (About Elly) establishes motivations and misunderstandings with subtle care and deprives us of critical information before one realizes its importance, so that when the characters try to protect themselves and their loved ones before an indifferent legal system, we find ourselves questioning their honesty as often as their accusers do. Hardly any music is used, and hardly any scene is unnecessary; this is high drama, only plain and simple on the surface.

As a teacher, one would expect Simin to know right from wrong. As a banker, one expects Nader to be trustworthy. And yet, as tempers fly (specifically Hodjat’s) and the children watch on, alternately obedient and observant, the moral and social values of the offending parties are continually scrutinized and compromised for the sake of justice ever evasive. Will it take money to appease the grief-stricken victims? Does a failure of disclosure negate the neglect which followed? What good is keeping a daughter in this country if she is to be orphaned anyway by a parent sentenced to jail?

Even on repeat viewings, it’s tough to say for sure, though incriminating details do become more readily apparent. From the first frames on, Farhadi invites his audience to pass judgment without ever doing so himself, starting with an impossible situation and ending on an impossible decision. He has crafted an impeccably acted and universally potent morality tale as well as a discreetly damning critique of Iranian rule that speaks to separations between husbands and wives, parents of all ages and their children, employers and employees, the middle class and the working class, a woman and her faith, a man and his pride, citizens and government, memory and certainty, the law and the truth.

A Separation crafts a minefield out of the mundane and may very well be a masterpiece for it.

Grade: A