by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Payman Maadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 99% Certified Fresh
PLOT: A married couple in Tehran are faced with a difficult decision – to improve their daughter’s life by moving to another country or to stay in Iran and look after a deteriorating parent who has Alzheimer’s disease.
The above plot description, paraphrased from IMDb, is rather brilliant because it is misleading in all the right ways. When I read it, I assumed I would be in for a depressing domestic drama, a la Marriage Story or Kramer vs. Kramer. It won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars that year, so that only strengthened my belief that it would be a fine film, but also a bit of a slog.
Boy, was I wrong. That plot description covers just the opening four or five minutes of the movie, an incredibly nuanced, brilliantly acted, uncut take of the two spouses, Nader (husband) and Simin (wife) arguing in front of a judge. Simin wants to move out of the country so their daughter, Termeh, can have a better quality of life. Nader has no problem with them leaving, per se, but he cannot go because he must stay and take care of his elderly father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. If Simin wants to go so bad, let her go, he says, but he won’t give permission for Termeh to go with her. And Simin won’t leave without Termeh. It’s a pickle. (For her part, Termeh wishes to stay with her father, but Simin says that’s only because she doesn’t know any better…how depressingly typical of parents going through a separation.)
After this brilliant scene, I was ready for the movie to settle into a series of one scene after another showing Nader and Simin arguing over custody of Termeh. Instead, the script ingeniously takes a bit of a left turn and focuses on the woman Nader has hired, Razieh, to be caretaker for his sick father, because Simin, in a move unexpected by me, packs up and moves out. Razieh wears a traditional chador, and so Nader is unable to tell she is pregnant, which might have affected his decision to hire her.
Razieh does her best with Nader’s father, but the long commute and the difficult work takes its toll. One day, Nader comes home from work and discovers his father has fallen out of bed, with one hand tied to the bedpost with a piece of cloth, and Razieh is nowhere to be found. He also discovers some money is missing. When Razieh returns, she is cagey about why she left, but she insists she stole no money. Nader is furious and tries to throw her out of his house. When she insists she be paid for the day’s work and continues to maintain her innocence of the theft of the missing money, Nader loses a little control and pushes her out the front door of their third-floor apartment and onto a staircase. She walks away, but later winds up in the hospital – she has suffered a miscarriage.
What follows is one of the most engrossing social dramas I’ve ever seen in my life. I suspect part of my insane interest in the story was the fact that it takes place in a country thousands of miles away, in a culture that is utterly alien to me, and yet the people there are just like any parents and children and husbands and wives we meet every day here in the States. Razieh’s husband, Hodjat, even has a line: “Why do you think we beat our wives and children like animals? I swear on this Qur’an, we’re humans just like you!” He’s talking to his accuser, but he was also talking to me.
The film is shot with mostly handheld cameras, a technique that works extremely well by making everything feel like a documentary. It makes things feel more real in a story that only works the more you empathize with the characters. I empathized a great deal, not because I am a husband or a father, but because I recognized their situation, faced with an impossible decision where each person is right and wrong simultaneously. In the ensuing plot developments, which I will not disclose here, I was so wrapped up in the lives of these people that I found myself reacting the way old school sit-com housewives might respond to watching their favorite soap operas while folding laundry. “No WAY did he just say that! …oh my god, lady, you’re just making things WORSE! …jeez, this guy is CRAZY…!”
This was an unexpected reaction for me. In years past, I have tended to shy away from foreign dramas after watching one called 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days about women in ‘80s-era Romania forced to seek illegal abortions due to their country’s ban on the practice. I’m not denying that film’s power, but it was so insanely depressing that I swore off foreign films for a while. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started to come back around to giving films like A Separation a chance. It hasn’t always paid off, but I’m happy to say it did this time, in spades.
I should note that the story is also extremely revealing in terms of the legal system in Iran. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, of course, but it all feels very authentic. In a governmental system so intertwined with religion, it’s easy to see how decisions that are made based on religious statutes may be technically correct without being just. Just another dimension to the film that makes it even more compelling to watch.
But there is another aspect of A Separation that I believe is even more profound than the engrossing domestic drama. I’m not even sure if it was intended by the filmmaker. I’ve read snippets of reviews from other top critics, and none of them seem to have touched on my theory.
In my opinion, A Separation could be interpreted as an allegory of the impossible choices faced by anyone living in such a country or circumstances who yearn for a better (or at least different) life elsewhere, but whose ties to their roots and traditions make such a decision extremely difficult.
Look at the husband in the story, Nader. He states repeatedly that he has no problem with his wife leaving. If his father weren’t sick, he would be more than happy to go with her. But his father needs constant care, and so his familial connection dictates his decision. There is a telling moment when Nader is bathing his father by hand, while the father sits in a wheelchair, virtually oblivious to his surroundings. Nader dutifully rinses his father’s body and leans him forward to so he can reach the bottom of his back…and he abruptly stops and starts to weep. Is he weeping for his father? Or himself? It’s one of the film’s many “fill-in-the-blank” moments that we must interpret for ourselves. For me, I believe it was over the fact that his decision to stay, motivated by love and duty, has resulted in years of caretaking. He’s committed to it. But it’s also profoundly sad.
Now look at the wife, Simin. She believes her daughter, Termeh, will be better off in another country where she doesn’t have to worry that some man might take out his anger on Termeh while at school or walking home from school. But Termeh insists on staying with her father. Simin’s choices are to stay and be unhappy, or leave…and be unhappy without her daughter. She adopts a middle ground by simply moving to her mother’s apartment while she works on convincing Termeh to come with her. In the grand scheme of things, as a function of the allegory I have in mind, she represents the person who wants to leave and is held back, not by duty, but by the fact she won’t leave her daughter behind. There’s a piece of her in this place, and she’s free to leave it if she wants, but she’ll never be the same.
How many people in other countries and other circumstances are faced with similar choices? How many people in our own circles are stuck in marriages or family situations where leaving appears to be the best option on one hand but an impossibility on the other? I could say that I’ve had similar situations in my own past with such a decision, but it was certainly nothing on the level of leaving my roots behind and moving to another country. I can’t imagine the struggle and conflict for anyone facing that kind of choice.
A Separation takes that struggle and wraps it up in a movie that, even if it weren’t so perfectly symbolic, could stand on its own with any other film from any other country. At the end of the film, the daughter is asked, point blank, which parent she would rather live with. In what would ordinarily be a frustrating moment, we are not shown what she chooses. It is left to us to imagine her choice. Or maybe not. Maybe we are meant to see what it’s like to be faced with an impossible choice, when neither option is better than the other and someone will get hurt either way.
The question isn’t, “What will she choose?” The question is, “What would you do?”