A Separation (2011)
Written & Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Simin and Nader’s marriage has reached a turning point. Simin wants to leave Iran while her husband wants to stay because of his ailing father, suffering from Alzheimer’s. Simin is adamant that their daughter Termeh be given opportunities that cannot be provided for her in Iran. As an act of protest, Simin separates herself and lives with her family waiting for Nader to at least allow Termeh to leave with her. Nader is forced to hire a housekeeper and nurse for his father during the days and settles on Razieh, a deeply religious young woman with a daughter. Razieh becomes distressed when she must change Nader’s father after he soils himself but keeps coming into work because her husband is in significant amounts of debt. One day a series of events transpire that lead Nader to believe Razieh stole money from his bedroom and left his father tied to a bed. An argument ensues with tragic consequences that will resonant within the lives of all people involved.
A Separation is a film about attempting to live life within a particular set of boundaries and coming out the other side unsure if you have done right and have a complete sense of ambiguity about what happens next. Nader and Simin are much more secular in their lives than Razieh, who is a more devout Muslim and living in poverty. We see their lives contrasted through the homes they live in and the way they handle high-pressure situations. Razieh sits waiting for her interview as Simin rushes through the house, silently packing her things while Nader tries to show he does not need her to keep a functioning household. Simin is headstrong while Razieh must call a cleric to see if she is permitted to undress and clean the grandfather. Razieh is in many ways what Simin fears her daughter will become, she does not see a grand future for women in this country and that fuels her need to help her child escape.
Religious strictures are contrasted with economic needs. Razieh continues coming into work to care for Nader’s father because her husband has accrued such great debt. At one point she tells Nader that the debtor came to their home with a police officer and her husband is in temporary custody. We see this woman’s desperation and how a cacophony of cultural expectations are stretching her mind and body to the breaking point. Nader too is reaching his end, his father becoming increasingly helpless, a living weight pulling Nader down into the abyss. He loves this man who raised him but is finding it harder to keep up the level of caretaking needed in the situation.
What A Separation does best is to create a space for moral ambiguity. Eventually, we find our characters before an interrogating judge, Iran’s system of law on display. There are no lawyers, just the two parties before a single magistrate who will interpret Muslim law to determine the level of guilt. Even this judge is positioned as a neutral party whom the audience may disagree with but ultimately understands. It’s clear why Razieh has done what she has done and so too are Nader’s motives clear. Simin proves to be a force of proactivity attempting to resolve the matter outside of court, using her family’s middle-class status to buy Razieh and her husband’s agreement. Everyone is doing what is best for themselves and their family at the moment.
Caught in the middle of this horrid situation is Termeh, only eleven years old, living with immense pressure academically and, due to her parents’ dissolving marriage, emotionally. She is eventually given a choice to go with whomever she pleases but remains mute on the decision. Termeh is a quiet observer, always present and witnessing the adults play out their tragedy. At one point, Nader enlists his daughter to testify even though she expresses her uncertainty about the facts. This is a turning point for the young woman, who reevaluates her father and his motives when she uncovers details about what happened at her family’s apartment.
The goal of A Separation is not to leave the audience with a complete story; instead, show impossible most situations are when people are in conflict. There are no easy solutions in the fight between Nader and Razieh, the consequences of which will remain with them for the rest of their lives. Marriages fall apart, and characters begin to view each other with suspicion, seeing how easily their moral certitude crumbles when they become desperate not be swallowed up by the system.