"A Separation" - Asghar Farhadi (2011)

A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, 2011) is an intense Iranian domestic drama by writer-director Asghar Farhadi (About Elly, 2009) that has drawn immense critical favor and won multiple awards.  The film opens with a married couple facing directly into the camera and giving testimony concerning their application for a divorce.  At first site, this looks very much like another version of Farhadi’s Fireworks Wednesday (Chaharshanbe Suri, 2006), which told a searing story of a bickering married couple and their inability to fashion a stable marriage relationship.  But A Separation proves to be quite different.  While both halves of the married couple in Fireworks Wednesday were unforgiving and unsympathetic characters, the married couple in A Separation, Nader and Simin, are reasonable and understandable.  We can empathize with each of them and understand why they act as they do.  What distinguishes them from each other, as the ensuing events will demonstrate, is that Nader is the principled idealist, while Simin is the pragmatist. Popular cultural expectations about gender roles often lead us to expect the man to be the pragmatist and the woman to be the principled idealist, but it is just the opposite in this case.

There is another significant aspect of A Separation that distinguishes it from many Iranian films, indeed from most films across the international spectrum, concerning the focus of the domestic interaction.  In many Iranian films, the focus is on the difficulties that women face in a conflicted and changing society that has traditionally placed severe restrictions on them.  In this film, however, the primary focalization and the underlying themes that drive the narrative are centered around the husband, Nader.  

The opening scene quickly and clearly reveals the main aspects of Nader and Simin’s situation. Simin has been working diligently for a year-and-a-half to acquire a visa to some overseas country, where she expects that they can have a better life for themselves and their eleven-year-old daughter, Termeh.  And now, finally, they have been granted the visa and have been given forty days in which to respond, that is, emigrate to their long-sought country abroad.  But Nader, who had originally cooperated with Simin’s efforts to emigrate, now refuses to go – he says he cannot abandon his father, whose Alzheimer’s condition requires round-the-clock care.  Nader is quite willing to allow his wife to leave, but he doesn’t want to hand over custody of Termeh to Simin, and the Islamic law of Iran evidently gives the husband  the authority in this situation.  So Simin and Nader have agreed to go through uncontested divorce proceedings in preparation for a further decision in connection with who will wind up with Termeh.  The magistrate listening to their divorce deposition, however, refuses to grant them a divorce, even though both Simin and Nader are in agreement about that issue.  He says their reasons for seeking a divorce are insufficient for dissolving their marriage.

The viewer can understand and even sympathize with the positions of both Simin and Nader.  Both of them are reasonable and civilized, but they have different outlooks.  Simin is practical and judges the good action by the likely beneficial consequences to come from it.  For Nader, his good actions are determined by his own inner moral compass, which is not governed by externally defined rules or outcomes.  This is exemplified by an exchange between Simin and Nader, when she points out to her husband that his dementia-stricken father at this point doesn’t even know that Nader is his own son.  “But I know him,” Nader responds.

Nader even decides to let Termeh go abroad with Simin if she chooses, but the girl decides to stick by her father at home. Simin moves out of the house, in preparation for her move abroad, and from here on, we follow what goes on at home with Nader and his daughter and father. It’s evident that Nader is a caring and thoughtful man and father, but he is clearly under stress.  He has a full-time job to attend to, his wife has just left him, he has to look after his terminally ailing father, and he must look after Termeh and help her with her schoolwork.  This stress and pressure on Nader will only intensify as the narrative progresses.

Nader proceeds to hire a caretaker woman, Razieh, to look after his father while he is away at work during the day.  Razieh comes from a conservative, lower-class background and is hesitant about the moral implications of being alone at home with another man, even if that man is almost insensate with dementia.  But with her husband unable to find work, she desperately needs the money and goes ahead with the job.

Not long after Razieh starts work, Nader comes home early one day and finds Razieh away from the house and his father half-dead on the floor of his bedroom, with his hands tied to the bedposts.  Razieh had tied the old man up to the bed and had gone out to attend to some other chores. In her absence, the father had fallen out of bed, leaving him in a precarious, immobile position on the floor. Nader manages to revive his father, but he is still very disturbed about Razieh’s neglect. He retains his composure, but his stress level has increased markedly. When Razieh returns to the apartment shortly thereafter, Nader confronts her with what has happened to his father and the fact that some money has been taken from his bureau.  He dismisses Razieh on the spot and orders her out of the house.  Razieh protests her innocence about the missing money and refuses to leave the apartment, so Nader pushes her out the door and locks it.  

The seemingly minor act of pushing Razieh out the door turns out to be a major event and brings woe to everyone.  Nader soon learns that Razieh was pregnant and had a miscarriage.  She charges Nader with assault, because she says she fell down the stairway leading up to his apartment when she was pushed out the door.  Nader expresses his sorrow and sympathy for what happened, but asserts that he is innocent of the assault charge.  Because Razieh was 19-weeks pregnant, Nader learns that he can be charged with murder and be sentenced to prison for up to three years.  A key issue is whether Nader knew that Razieh was pregnant when he pushed her out the door.  If he did, then the law says he is culpable for a murder.  

The rest of the film revolves around unraveling what happened when Nader nudged Razieh out the door.  Did she really fall down the stairs (the viewer doesn’t see it)?  Did the alleged fall cause the miscarriage, or was there some other incident at that time?  Did Nader really know about Razieh’s pregnancy?  We viewers knew, but Nader swears he did not, and we are moved to take Nader at his word.  Little scraps of evidence come out here and there.  All the way along, we are looking to see if Nader will be found guilty of the charge.  We are also judging Nader, ourselves, along with Termeh, according to our own moral compasses.  

A key moment in the story occurs when Termeh confronts Nader with her doubts about whether he knew about Razieh’s pregnancy before the shoving – there are inconsistencies in what Nader testified to the authorities.  With his integrity as a parent on the line, Nader confesses to Termeh that he did know about Razieh’s pregnancy before the act. But he denied knowing to the authorities, because the rigidity of the law doesn’t take into account the fact that at the moment of his nudging her out the door, he was not mindful of her condition. He knew, and yet he didn’t know, he tells Termeh.  According to the letter of the law and according to the strict, conservative moral code followed by Razieh and her husband Hodjiat, Nader is a liar and guilty of a crime.  But Nader tells Termeh that he still believes he is innocent of the crime of murder, but the rigidity of the law compelled him to cover up his foreknowledge of Razieh’s pregnancy.  Termeh is anguished to hear this, but stands loyally behind her father’s testimony when she is interrogated by the authorities.

The pragmatic Simin reenters the situation and tries to come up with a practical solution.  If they are willing to pay a diyya (“blood money”) of 40 million tomans (about US$ 40,000) to Razieh and Hodjiat, Nader can avoid going to jail.  Simin approaches Razieh and Hodjiat and gets them to agree to a payment of 15 million tomans.  If Nader confesses to the crime and pays the blood money, he can avoid going to jail.  But Nader doesn’t go along with this arrangement, because it would entail his admission that he committed murder.  He believes in his own innocence.

The acting in A Separation is very good, particularly that of Peyman Maadi in the role of Nader. Indeed all of the performers, including Leila Hatami (Leila, 1998; Low Heights, 2002) and Niki Karimi (Sara, 1992), give convincing and subtle performances. On the other hand, the shaky hand-held cinematography in the film is a distraction and an irritation.  Farhadi has chosen to track his players in closeup and medium closeup as they move around the setting.  Such close-in filming requires an extremely steady camera, particularly when the character movement stops and slight movements of what are supposed to be static images are more noticeable.  Unfortunately this kind  of steady image control is not what we get in A Separation

As I mentioned above, there are two judgement examinations of Nader’s behaviour going on in parallel in the film: the official legal case conducted by the civil authorities, and our own private assessment. The ingenue Termeh acts as something of a surrogate for our own assessment of Nader: she knows as much as the viewer and also sympathizes with both parents. At the end of the film, the official examination by the civil authorities is resolved, but Farhadi chooses to leave Termeh’s own, personal assessment open.  Termeh is asked at the end of the film to choose between two different ways of looking at the world: that of Simin or that of Nader.  Both of them are more flexible and complex than the strict moral bookkeeping characteristic of conservative societies,  but they have differing outlooks.  I believe I know which one Termeh chooses, do you?
★★★½ 

4 comments:

Lisa said...

thanks for a wonderful review. I am going to see this film tonight!

Jugu Abraham said...

Could you throw any light on why Nader makes his father/allows his father to wear a tie in public, when he takes him out in the car to his wife's house. Thanks.

mkp said...

You make an interesting point, Jugo. Since the Revolution, Iranian authorities and moralizers have endeavoured to establish a social norm opposed to men wearing a necktie, which is deemed to be too “Western” and not in alignment with the principles of the Revolution. You do occasionally see some people, particularly in places like Tehran, wearing ties, but they are usually older people whose practices date back to the “old days”, when it was more common among the progressive middle classes. Nader’s allowing his father to wear a necktie would presumably reflect his filial loyalty. And it would also probably subtly underscore the class distinction between his family and that of Razieh. on "A Separation" - Asghar Farhadi (2011)

Luis said...

Thanks from a portuguese viewer. Wonderful film. I feel lucky to have had it broacasted on national television here.