If you are looking for a breather from the daily grinds of life and want to lose yourself in a light fare of romance and laughter, steer clear of this movie. But if you want to witness an unflinching look at life in all its pathos and ambiguities, in which faith, loyalty, family values, traditional culture and class distinctions clash in a draining suspense worthy of both Hitchcock and John le Carre, then go see the Iranian masterpiece called “A Separation.”
Director Asghar Farhadi’s movie should win the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year. If not, we can conclude that something is seriously wrong with the Academy. The film has gained worldwide acclaim since its release in 2011 and has been racking up awards at film festivals, most recently the Golden Globe.
But award or no award, this is a superbly-crafted film that deals intelligently and unsparingly with the big questions of life. It pulls no punches. We are gripped by the emotional conflicts of the actors because we realize with a shock that these are our conflicts as well, in one form or another.
Nader (Peyman Maadi) is resisting divorce from his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) because she wants to migrate to a foreign land and he does not. He cannot bear the thought of abandoning his Alzheimer-stricken father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). The custody of the couple’s 11-year old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter) is the bone of contention. It is unresolved at this point but Termeh decides to stay with her father when her mother moves in with her parents.
Nader has to find a caretaker for his headstrong but helpless father in a hurry. At his wife’s urging, he hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a chador-clad religious working-class woman. Razieh has problems of her own. She has to care for a young daughter. She has a psychopathic husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini, to deal with. She has to travel a considerable distance by bus to reach Nader’s apartment, a perilous daily undertaking considering that she is pregnant (not known to the protagonists at the outset). She has to lie to her husband about the job because he would not approve of her caring for another man, even if he is over 80. But most of all, looking after an incontinent man turns out to be a nightmare, especially since Nader’s father has a habit of wandering off from the apartment when she is mopping floors or preparing food.
In this combustible mix, things can explode for any number of social, cultural or religious reasons, and they all do. Nader comes home one day in the very first week to find his father unconscious, his hands tied to the bed. Razieh is nowhere to be found. When she does show up, bedlam ensues. A crime of some kind is committed, although we are not sure who actually committed it. Nader finds himself in a court battle with Razieh and her husband, and soon his wife, daughter and neighbors are dragged into it as well. The autocratic and impassive judge infuriates both parties as he oscillates between indifference and high-handedness.
The key event on which the entire movie pivots is never shown, even in flashback. This is Asghar Farhadi’s masterstroke. By visually withholding what really happened (it is only revealed in a few words near the climax), he heightens the tension and achieves a shattering effect. I will not be giving away anything if I paraphrase what Nader says to Razieh as the two families are on the brink of working out a settlement: “Can you swear by the Quran that I am responsible for what happened to you?”
Razieh is unable to do so because, as a believer, she feels that if she lies and commits a sin, it will cast a shadow on her daughter.
A happy ending thus slips away. And when Termeh has to finally decide before a judge who she wants to live with – mom or dad – we see the parents waiting outside in the corridor, separated by a glass door, lost in their private agonies. The ending seems incomplete, similar to the ending in that famous 1882 short story by Frank Stockton called “The Lady, or the Tiger?” But in leaving us with a question, director Farhjadi has in reality made his movie complete, for in the moral universe that we inhabit, heartbreak occurs not from having to choose between right and wrong but between two equally compelling rights.