An exquisite salmagundi of moral grey shades, A Separation explicitly hands off judgment to the audience in the opening scene, as Simin and Nader sit before a judge and address directly to camera their cases for and against divorce. She wants to emigrate, to raise their daughter, Temeh, away from the difficulties and repressions of Iran, whilst he does not want to leave his Alzheimer’s suffering father, but must provide consent for the daughter to travel. They agree to a temporary separation whilst this is worked out.
So Nader must hire a carer for the daytime when he is absent. Enter Razieh, a devout, mousy woman who is overworked and underpaid, with an angelic-looking daughter who’s a brat like any other, playing with the dad’s oxygen and scattering trash on the stairs. Razieh requires religious advice when the old man soils himself, and is unable to tell her husband that she goes to a single man’s house; he meanwhile is unable to fill in for her, having been hauled away temporarily by his creditors, for he was summarily fired from his job at a cobblers and been unable to make legal headway in claiming compensation. Everyone has their reasons.
The small decisions, mistakes and self-serving moral choices escalate at an impressive rate. No-one does anything too obviously bad, and certainly nothing for which we audience cannot fully understand their motives, but the situation quickly becomes one in which any of five lives may easily be ruined. Director Asghar Farhadi is meticulous with the logic of character, and the cast are tremendous, jointly awarded best actor and best actress awards at Berlin, where the film itself won the Golden Bear. Farhadi strives to give each equal screen time and not to allow his discreet camera to push in closer to any one of them, in the name of maintaining a balanced viewpoint; he is almost entirely successful in spreading sympathy and blame evenly across each of the four adults, whose conflicting emotions and motivations are painfully clear.
Even the interrogator/magistrate before whom they repeatedly appear is allowed to be not merely a faceless representative of the dispassionate law, and we can certainly sympathize with the difficulty of his job. Razieh’s husband comes off worst, however, for his hotheadedness; but as he rightly points out, his lower class status and lack of smooth articulation automatically puts him at a disadvantage in the legal wrangles that ensue with the principle couple. For all the fairness of approach, however, it is clear that Simin and Nader are not doing right by their intelligent, sad-eyed daughter Temeh: it is down to her to try to fix the marriage, and the position in which they place her at the end is odious.
The layers of blame and moral nuance build up so swiftly and naturally that it is hard to tell how far Farhadi is manipulating his audience – on a single viewing my suspicion is that he is genuinely trying not to, but that one cannot help but be nudged towards preferring Nader: he does after all have a sick, tragic-looking father and exhibits remarkable patience at various points in the film; and Farhadi cast his own daughter as Temeh, with whom he has a sweet, warm relationship. Also, the threat of imprisonment for the murder (not even manslaughter) of a 19-week old fetus is about as absurd a situation as one could imagine, without its being ridiculously unbelievable. He also gets to point out Simin’s tendency to take the easy way out, whilst he is prepared to fight. But at the same time, it is his bullish pride that prevents him from asking Simin to stay, which is all that it would take to reunite the family. He also tells the most significant lie of the film, and it is only he who can make his child cry with disappointment, and betray her own sense of what is morally correct.
The film puts only a single foot wrong, in cutting short a scene near the start in a way that feels odd at the time, and reveals itself later to have elided a crucial piece of information (that seems not quite necessary in any case). But that is a minor quibble with a work that deftly weaves moral issues of gender, religion and class whilst remaining firmly rooted in the daily life and preoccupations of specific, normal individuals: as the parents sit in the courthouse corridor over the closing credits, it is clear that their story is one of many that could be told, of similar circumstances. Our conventional need for resolution may feel disappointed at the film’s withholding the final decision, but Farhadi is not about to step in now and provide judgment. It is that rare film that affords its audience the respect that they can come to their own conclusions – indeed, encourages it – whilst presenting characters that are all-too human rather than cold case studies. For it really to work, one has to let the bad parenting slide, but in any event it is remarkably even-handed, complex, and gripping, and extremely impressive.
More information on the film from AFI FEST: A Separation