A Separation seems to invent itself as it goes along. It doesn’t mirror or mock or play minor variations on some timeworn genre or theme. It just pulls you in, instantly and inexorably, to its perfectly life-sized world. If it feels familiar, it’s because it’s as poignant, precarious, and endlessly complicated as life itself.
We first meet Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) in what appears to be a divorce-court hearing. The camera assumes the unseen judge’s point of view, so the couple talks directly to it, making their impassioned arguments to each other or to us. Meanwhile, the judge’s disembodied pronouncements provide the first of several male voices of authority, embodying Iran’s paternalistic, often repressive social structure and its justice system.
Simin wants to leave Iran with the couple’s 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s daughter Sarina). “As a mother, I’d rather she not grow up under these circumstances,” she says. “What circumstances?” the judge asks, the first of many questions the film pointedly leaves unanswered. Nader won’t join her because his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who lives with them, has an advanced case of Alzheimer’s and he refuses to abandon him. He doesn’t try to stop Simin from leaving, a decision that clearly hurts her deeply though it seems to be motivated by his principled respect for her autonomy. But he won’t let Termeh go and Simin can’t take her out of the country without his permission. So they’re stuck in a standoff, one convinced she must leave for her daughter’s sake and the other convinced he must stay for his father’s.
The fact that we learn all this in the first five minutes or so, and that those five minutes play out with such fluid and compelling drama that you never once feel the heavy hand of an author doling out expository information, should give you some idea of how elegantly and intelligently this tale is told. In a somewhat clumsily translated Q&A following the press screening, director Farhadi said it’s very important to him that his films be shown in his homeland, so he has developed a few ways of making sure that happens. “One way is, I don’t speak loudly in my films,” he said. “Another way is that I don’t force my judgments on the audience. And there are other ways that, if I tell you about them, I won’t be able to show my films [there] anymore.”
I’m sure there are veiled references to conditions in Iran in A Separation that I missed, but there was still plenty to chew on. When Nader hires a very devout woman (Sareh Bayat) to look after his father after Simin moves out, a new dimension of class differences is introduced. And when that arrangement comes to an abrupt and disastrous end, the faultlines created by class, wealth, and gender inequalities crack under the stress, creating chasms deep enough to swallow whole relationships.
Farhadi, who worked in theater for years before becoming a director (the first movie he directed was 2003’s Dancing in the Dust), said he always rehearses with his actors for six or eight weeks before shooting, letting them use that time to discover their characters for themselves. “I want whatever happened in me to cause the creation of that character to happen in the actor,” he said. Whatever he’s doing, it clearly works: The cast is universally excellent, inhabiting their characters so fully that it’s easy to forget they’re acting. All the characters work hard to hide things from each other, but they can’t hide much from us, thanks to the strategically placed camera and the emotional transparency of the actors.
At the same time, Farhadi is playing a cat-and-mouse game with us, often ending a scene just before a key event occurs or keeping us behind closed doors with some of the characters while unseen others do something crucial on the other side. Some of that information is withheld only temporarily, but we’re left to guess at a number of things. “This is a detective story, but the detectives are the audience,” he said, and some of the questions the movie raises are not easily answered.
Nader is constantly schooling his daughter, drilling her on math and Arabic and other academic subjects, but the most important lessons she learns are the ones we absorb along with her. When is a lie the morally correct choice? How much of your own safety and comfort should you risk to stand up for the truth, and how much are you entitled to risk of other people’s? How do you decide whether to stay or to go if either choice will mean abandoning someone you love?
Unpredictable twists, a gathering sense of dread, and the tender humanism that infuse it all make Farhadi’s film absorbing, but it’s fundamental ethical and moral questions like these that make it great.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.