Barriers both transparent and persistently present encase the characters of A Separation, constricting them in ways social, cultural, religious, familial, and emotional. Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s superb drama concerns Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), a couple introduced through the eyes of a divorce lawyer as they plead their respective cases: With her visa set to shortly expire, Simin wants a divorce so she can move abroad, but Nader, though willing to comply on this issue, refuses to allow their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), to accompany her, thus stymieing Simin’s plans. From the outset, the omnipresent perspective and law are those of the male-centric government apparatus, and the role of the state looms large in the couple’s lives once they agree to live apart, with Simin moving to her mother’s and Nader remaining at home with Termeh, his aged Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, and the father’s new caretaker, Razieh (Sareh Bayat). Married, and with a young daughter who accompanies her to work, Razieh proves, for both religious and marital reasons, uncomfortable with her job once Nader’s father wets himself, requiring a nude cleaning. However, the tension between Razieh’s need for money (her husband is unemployed) and restrictive cultural propriety is merely one of many fraught dynamics throughout Farhadi’s film, which consistently visualizes the obstructions in its characters’ paths by visually separating them behind see-through windows, doors, and glass structures.
To read A Separation as a metaphor on both a big and small scale is not just accurate but unavoidable; when, for example, Nader forces Termeh to demand that a lazy gas-station attendant return his tip, it’s not just a shrewd parenting lesson, but a highly political gender-related one as well. And the underlying larger-context meaning of Farhadi’s tale becomes even clearer once Nader discovers that Razieh has left his father alone and tied to the bed, accuses her of theft, and physically shoves her out of the apartment, an incident that spirals out of control once Razieh loses her unborn baby and points the blame at Nader. In court, the judge suffers the bickering of Nader, Razieh, and her fiery spouse, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), only showing true interest when his own belief in God is questioned by Hodjat, thus making him a symbol of Iran’s callous, holier-than-thou powers-that-be. Yet if the film resounds at every turn with wider implications, it’s canny enough to keep such concerns subtextual, maintaining a strict focus on the unbearably tense and twisted difficulties that soon arise from its scenario. As Nader is charged with murder, his case hinging on whether he knew if Razieh was in fact pregnant (an issue the director further complicates by cannily masking that visual information), and Hodjat becomes an increasingly menacing threat to Termeh, Farhadi’s camera tracks its protagonists with bobbing-and-weaving grace, employing innumerable close-ups to create an atmosphere of piercing immediacy.
Even after events begin to calamitously devolve, Farhadi exudes sincere empathy for his tale’s competing POVs, taking time to understand and acknowledge the root motivations of his various players, who are separated by not just gender and age but class (Nader and Simin are middle class, Razieh and Hodjat are working class). More impressive than its careful consideration of its characters, however, is the way in which A Separation recognizes, addresses, and yet never attempts to provide a definitive statement on the way in which facts, lies, and competing self-interest are often hopelessly tangled up, such that honesty on a specific point might eventually lead to only negative outcomes, and that initial deception might in fact be the best final course for all involved. As revelations mount about the veracity of both Razieh and Nader’s claims, what emerges is a portrait of intertwined altruism and self-regard leading to legal, cultural, and personal disasters that can only be reconciled, ultimately, by a full airing of the truth. When that moment arrives, it’s naturally accompanied by a broken pane of glass, though it’s the final image of Nader and Simin on either side of a partially opened double-doorway that speaks, ultimately and heartbreakingly, to the limits of fully transcending internal and external barricades.