I think there are primarily two things to wonder about when you’re watching a film about an Iranian couple considering divorce. Firstly most people would wonder – why should they watch a film about Iran? Secondly, it’s pretty natural to expect that something will happen that will draw these disenchanted people in the marriage together at the end of the film. But just to let you know – this is Iranian New Wave cinema – so expect it to be as simple and un-theatrical as possible.
I know this review comes really late – I was planning to write it many months ago before ‘A Separation’ won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film this year – but I didn’t get to it. Now I think I can finally put my thoughts coherently.
‘A Separation’, third generation Iranian New Wave filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s latest film, is a story about Simin and Nader, who citing differences in opinion, wish to separate. Simin wants to move to another country so that her daughter can grow up in a better environment, whereas Nader wishes to stay in Iran to take care of his aged father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Simin says that Nader is using his father as an excuse.
Unable to be together due to their differences in opinion, the urbanised couple decides to stay in separate houses in Tehran, with their daughter Termeh living with her father. Simin goes to stay with her parents.
When a devout Muslim woman (Razieh) is hired to take care of Nader’s father, Simin and Nader’s already troubled lives turn upside down. Nader is livid about the apparent mistreatment of his father, whereas Simin is trying to balance the situation that a particular misfortunate episode with the caretaker has brought about. What ensues is a long struggle for the couple and for their daughter, who is coming to terms with her parents’ decision to divorce.
Revealing anything further is going to give away too much of the story, so I’ll leave it here.
If you are familiar with Iranian New Wave cinema, you’d know that the films aren’t exactly what you would call ‘high-concept’. Does that mean they are stupid and boring? Completely the contrary. They can surprise you with how honest they are. By honest, I don’t mean absolutely depressing like the Afghan film ‘Osama’. Rather, I mean that they portray human emotions, frailty, and frankness better than perhaps most other kinds of cinema in the world. (I’d have to say that when it comes to Iranian culture and Iranian cinema, I’m quite biased.)
‘A Separation’ isn’t a feel-good movie. It’s as real as watching the lives of people you know. There’s no emotive soundtrack calling out for your attention or telling you that this is your cue to laugh or cry. All the actors, Peyman Maadi (Nader), Leila Hatami (Simin), Sarina Farhadi (Termeh – and the director’s daughter in reality), Sareh Bayat (Razieh), Shabab Hosseini (Hojjat, Razieh’s husband), Ali-Asghar Shahbazi (Nader’s father), are top-notch and do not ever for a second make you feel that you’re watching a movie. In fact I’m still wondering if Ali-Asghar Shahbazi is genuinely an Alzheimer’s patient!
What seems like a simple story is in fact filled with layers of complexities. Simin and Nader are both strong characters, who know each other so well. Yet their incompatibility makes them drift apart. In the middle is their young daughter Termeh, who hopes that her parents can be reunited. Even as the audience, you are left wondering if the couple really has a reason to divorce or if everything they set forward in court is actually an excuse to separate. When the couple goes through some ordeals together that brings them closer, Termeh pins her hope on their reunion.
The strength of Farhadi’s direction lies in the way he portrays his characters. As the audience, you feel for all the characters, though you might find yourself rooting for one. At times you feel helpless like Termeh, who watches how the differences between her parents are far from reconciliation. At other times you are surprised at how well the Simin knows Nader and how well Nader knows Simin. Sometimes your heart goes out to Razieh, who as a poor woman has a number of things to lose. Sometimes Nader’s concern for his father really strikes a chord.
There is no stereotypical villain ruining the lives of members in a happy family. There is no hero who saves the day. There are only situations, and human emotions that make this film worthy of all its accolades.
Farhadi brilliantly portrays the differences in Iranian mentality and society. There’s Nader and Simin, who form the secular Iranian middle class or upper middle class, and there’s Razieh, who is a devout woman from the lower class. The distinction is made immediately and these mindsets influence the turn of events in the movie more than we can understand.
Many people think the film makes a strong statement about Iranians wanting to leave Iran, but in my opinion, that’s seeing the film from a very narrow lens indeed. Like Farhadi stated in an interview on BBC’s ‘Talking Movies’, the film is not primarily about Iranians wanting to leave Iran in search of better opportunities. It is simply the story of two people wanting to separate.
One way of really enjoying this movie is to stop thinking of Iran as ‘the enemy’. I like the fact that Farhadi shows how conservatively dressed Razieh is in her chador, and how Simin and Termeh, though wearing headscarves (as required of women in Iran) actually dress in jeans. Additionally, having Simin drive her own car, while having Razieh commuting by a woman-only bus, makes another strong distinction between the lives of the two women and also shows two separate sides to the situation of women in Iran. Farhadi presents to us an Iran that is not really different from the countries we live in, and the plights of its people are the same. This is what makes this film so universal regardless of being set in Iran.
There’s just one thing left to say. When I say ‘A Separation’ is a realistic film, I do not mean if feels like a documentary. When I say it’s Iranian, I’m not talking about a film from a country that’s most often regarded as a fundamentalist, nuclear warfare hungry country. It’s not. And this film will definitely show you a different side to a country that’s in the news for all the wrong reasons. Just go to watch this with a clear mind, with no preconceptions, and you’ll realise why it’s been one of the most highly acclaimed foreign films of the year.