NYFF 2011: Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation

Originally published at Capital New York, for my coverage of the 2011 New York Film Festival

The events in Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, unfold with chaos and yet inevitability, as though one is watching, in slow motion, a giant disaster occur. Nothing can be predicted about the outcome to those on the ground living it. Life doesn’t work that way. One comment leads to an action which then causes an equal and opposite reaction. Multiply this ten or twenty-fold, and you have the tailspin of A Separation, a heartbreaking, devastating film, one of the strongest in this year’s festival.

Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) are an Iranian couple, now separated, with an 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter). Simin is making plans to move abroad, and Nader, who takes care of his father ill with Alzheimer’s, does not want to go, does not feel he can go. There is also Termeh to consider. Termeh is in school. Would it be right to uproot her? The reasons for Simin wanting to flee are vague, although she does tell the divorce judge in the opening scene, “I don’t want to raise my daughter under these circumstances.” “What circumstances?” asks the judge. The answer,left unsaid, perhaps should go without saying.

Simin has moved out and lives with her mother. Nader, desperate for help with the caretaking of his father, hires a nursemaid. This is how Razieh (Sareh Bayat) comes into their lives. What follows is a clash not only of competing self-interests, but a clash of an entire class divide exposing the seething resentments and misunderstanding on either side of the cultural abyss. An often shattering film, A Separation is ruthless in its commitments to letting the events play out in all their awful inevitability. There is no manipulation or pumping-up of the drama, no deus ex machina, no easy reconciliation. What has been revealed cannot be hidden away again.

Simin and Nader are from the shrinking Iranian middle class, educated and modern. Simin, a teacher, wears elegant silk head scarves and jeans. Razieh, on the other hand, comes from a poor and more traditional background, and wears the full black chador. Her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) can’t get a job, and he has been in and out of debtors’ prison for a couple of years. (Debtors’ prison still exists in Iran.) They have a 5-year-old daughter (one of those beautifully unselfconscious children so common in Iranian cinema), and another child on the way (which will become an important plot point). Razieh, desperate to keep her family afloat, takes the job without her husband’s knowledge. She doesn’t want to shame him.

Iranian cinema has an international reputation for excellence, from the work of avant-garde auteurs like Abbas Kiaorstami, poetic innovators like Bahman Ghobadi, or gritty street dramas like those of currently imprisoned director Jafar Panahi. Due to censorship issues, Iranian directors often take elliptical routes to make their points, one of the reasons why Iranian films generate such interest and power.

A Separation may sound, on the face of it, like a domestic drama, and it is that. But it is also an examination of the often-dangerous clashes in current-day Iran: Tradition meeting Modernism. Each side lacks respect for the other. To Razieh and her husband, Simin and Nader are godless tools of Western capitalism. To Simin and Nader, Razieh and her husband are ignorant and backwards, evidence of all they despise about Iran. The chador is what often gets the most attention in the West and in A Separation nothing much is said about it, although all you have to do is look at Simin and Razieh side by side to get the point. In his 2006 film Fireworks Wednesday, another fantastic domestic drama exposing the Iranian culture-class divide, Asghar Farhadi used the chador more explicitly. Here, in A Separation, he leaves it, like so much else, unsaid.

Razieh is nervous in her new job, and intimidated by the wealth of her new employer. One day she makes a decision while caring for the old man, a decision that will have reverberating and terrible repercussions. Nader, under a lot of pressure, and furious, fires Razieh.

This is when A Separation takes off.

To say more would be a disservice to this finely wrought tense film that calls to mind the pressure cooker of Henrik Ibsen’s plays, with their indictments of a society that leaves many of its participants no way out. There are no villains, except for the system which creates and even encourages these situations. All of the characters are honorable people, doing their best, but they make mistakes, they keep secrets from each other. Operating out of panic and desperation, Nader, whose life has fallen apart, has custody of Termeh now. The father-daughter bond is close. Termeh does not want to leave Iran. Kramer vs. Kramer is an apt analogy, although you don’t get the sense that Simin and Nader do not love one another. Their problems are bigger.

Leila Hatami, who made such an indelible first impression as the depressed infertile wife in 1998’s Leila, has been turning in fantastic performances for over a decade now. Here, in A Separation, she is a woman with one foot out the door at all times. Her bags are packed. Always. She wants to take Termeh with her, but Nader will not grant her a divorce on those grounds. Hatami manages all of these complex emotional realities with an ease and power showing why she is such a big star.

But it’s really Peyman Moadi’s movie. Moadi is primarily a screenwriter (he wrote the heartbreaking 2006 triptych tale, Cafe Seterah), but he is also one hell of an actor. As Moadi, his acting is specific, nuanced and yet powerful. The hand-held camera following him through his apartment adds to the documentary feel of Moadi’s performance – which does not look like a “performance” at all. There is one moment where, as the confrontation with Razieh reaches a breaking point, he gives his father a bath. Concentrated on the task, he rubs his father’s back, lifting up his father’s arms, tenderly caring for the man who is now lost to the world due to his disease. Moadi eventually breaks down, pressing his face into his father’s wet back, sobbing. Moadi is magnificent.

Sarina Farhadi, as Termeh, the daughter on the verge of adolescence, with a front row seat at the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, is a child, but she goes toe to toe with the experienced actors jostling around her. Farhadi’s face is serious and thoughtful, with deep pain behind it, a pain she feels she cannot show to her parents. She is alone with her troubles. You root for her.

As Razieh and Hodjat, Sareh Bayat and Shahab Hosseini share a palpable urgency, the urgency of people with no recourse. Shahab Hosseini is a handsome and strapping guy, and as Hodjat we can see the danger of emasculating an entire generation due to lack of meaningful work. Hodjat is strong, capable, handsome and responsible. His society has failed him. His life has been devastated by the encounter with Simin and Nader, and he is determined to make them pay. You can’t blame him. Hodjat could have been written as a complete stereotype, a villain. Instead, Farhadi’s script allows us to see his point of view. Sareh Bayat, as the shy and religious Razieh, who also has a backbone of steel, is fearless in showing the often unforgivable actions of the character. It is impossible not to ache for the hardship of this woman’s life.

She’s just doing the best she can. So is everyone else. Nobody is operating with malicious intent, nobody is evil. Everyone is just doing the best they can.

A Separation is rightfully called a tragedy. You weep for everyone involved.

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