“A Separation” BY ANTHONY LANE CREDITILLUSTRATION BY LORENZO MATTOTTI
Who is being addressed, at the start of “A Separation”? We see two people, middle-class Iranians named Nader (Peyman Moadi) and his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), facing the camera and discussing their possible divorce. Simin plans to leave the country and make a life abroad, but Nader wants to stay and raise their only child, an eleven-year-old girl called Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), in Iran. He has no wish to split; he wants to preserve things as they are. The couple do not hate one another, and Simin describes her husband as a “good, decent person,” but for some profound reason—a reason that is never spelled out in the movie, but that we gradually come to grasp all too well—she desires another existence. That is why, in the beginning, they look in our direction; notionally, they are pleading with a magistrate, because we hear his voice as he quizzes them, but they are speaking, with equal fervor, to us. I felt like answering back, “You talkin’ to me?”
I would love to claim that, almost two hours later, and after hearing the rights and wrongs of the case, I was able to offer sound and impartial advice, but “A Separation,” though in many respects a cramped domestic drama, yanks us to and fro with a fierce and spacious energy. You feel for almost everyone involved, yet you don’t quite know what to think, and there is something strangely exhausting in watching the most minor events—a tetchy gesture, a chance remark—set off what should be a ripple but turns out to be a shock wave. The writer and director, Asghar Farhadi, has thus created the perfect antithesis of a crunching disaster flick, such as “2012,” which was all boom and no ripple.
The initial impact, in “A Separation,” comes when Simin goes to stay with her family, either for good or by way of a trial run. Termeh remains with Nader, an arrangement that would work fine if it were not for his father, who lives with them and suffers from Alzheimer’s. Nader arranges for a carer named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to spend the day with the old man; Razieh has a two-and-a-half-hour commute just to reach them, and she needs to bring her young daughter, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), with her. Oh, and Razieh is pregnant, although whether Nader has noticed her condition is open to debate. Inviting Americans to give up their winter nights for the sake of Islamic marital disputes is a tough sell, but, if audiences can be press-ganged into this movie, what they will find is a nourishing blend of the distant and the utterly familiar; anyone struggling to cope with parents in failing health, or with the guilty pressure of hiring others to look after them, will know exactly what this movie is about, while gazing in perplexity as Razieh, alarmed by the fact that the elderly father has soiled his pants, makes a phone call in search of religious advice. “If I change him, will it count as a sin?” she asks. Gravely, her little girl looks on. “I won’t tell Dad,” she says.
One day, the old fellow, left unattended, wanders into the street. Razieh locates him, to her relief, and we cut to a merry scene of adults and children, safe at home, playing a game of table football. Panic over. The next day, though, when Nader returns from work, he finds his father tied to a bedstead and Razieh nowhere to be seen. Panic back on, and this time there is no respite; when she appears, there is a scuffle, which concludes with Razieh being pushed out of the apartment, falling, and miscarrying. Nader is charged with the murder of an unborn child, and is briefly imprisoned before being bailed; he countercharges, citing his father’s maltreatment at Razieh’s hands, and, before we know it, the air is thick with wounded pride, demands for blood money, and lives on the brink of collapse. Accusations are levelled not in the ceremonious rigor of a court but in a dingy office, with the irate plaintiffs standing up and leaning over the desk of a judge,…