When a film wins the Golden Bear at Berlin, it is usually a good bet that it will be serious and challenging – but not necessarily popular. A Separation doesn’t disprove the Berlin prediction but it has been very popular in France as well as at home in Iran and it is currently in IMDb’s Top 250 titles. Written and directed with enormous care and skill by Asghar Farhadi and blessed with excellent performances all round (winning acting prizes) this is a film that on one level works as a domestic drama (rather than a family melodrama) and on another as a legal drama (which some critics have labelled a thriller). In a similar way, it offers universal story elements about family life but also elements that are distinctly Iranian – or rather ‘non-European/Anglo-American’.
I’m not going to describe the plot in detail. Suffice to say the film begins with Nader and Simin in front of a judge (who we don’t see but who’s ‘point of view’ we are forced to adopt). Simin wants to leave Iran and take their 11 year-old daughter Termeh with her. Nader refuses to leave because he must stay and look after his father who has Alzheimer’s. The judge tells them that they must both agree to the divorce and that they should go away and sort it out. Simin then decides to leave the family apartment and go to her mother’s. Termeh decides to stay put. This is the ‘inciting’ incident in the narrative. Without his wife in the household, Nader begins to realise that getting carers for his father during the daytime (when he is at work and Termeh is at school) is going to be an issue. When he does hire a woman from the suburbs to come to his apartment the problems become real. It’s important that the audience is alert throughout all the early stages of the narrative because what happens later depends, as a legal dispute, on tiny pieces of information revealed in these early scenes – and I’m not going to claim to have remembered them all!
The intricate plotting across just over two hours never lets up in intensity. It is presented via a simple and clear aesthetic with hand-held camerawork that operates fairly close to the characters in the confined spaces of rooms, offices, stairways etc. and a couple of roadside locations. There is no musical score – only dialogue, sound effects and direct sound. The great strength of the screenplay and characterisation is that there are no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ as such. In the true humanist sense, we are able to recognise that everyone has their good and less good sides – with the possible exception of Termeh who is forced by circumstances into impossible situations that she tries desperately to resolve. Termeh is played by the director’s own daughter.
The film has a terrible fascination, partly because of its universality. Tehran is in many ways no different to London, Paris or New York. Alzheimer’s is an issue with older relatives everywhere in the developed world (I’m assuming that it is a different kind of problem in poorer societies). The social class divide is just as important in Iran. Nader is a bank employee with some kind of responsibility. Simin’s profession wasn’t clear to me, but this is a middle-class household with working professionals. The would-be carers face a long commute across the city and they desperately need the money.
The religious issues in the film did not strike me as important in the ways that other commentators have suggested. All the women in the film cover their hair, but the woman carer wears a full chador. She is also concerned about what is ‘allowed’ in a strangers’ (i.e. non-family) household, but overall I thought that the moral questions – about truthfulness and fidelity – were presented in such a way that they were relevant whether or not the characters were devout Muslims. The film does in many ways invite us, the audience, to ask what we would do in the same circumstances.
The Iranian judicial process as presented in the film reminded me very much of the way a not totally dissimilar incident is handled in Tomás Gutierrez Aléa’s Memories of Underdevelopment (Cuba 1968). I felt for the investigating judge listening to the case and trying to be fair to all sides. The Iranian system is presented as thorough but somewhat inflexible in its process. It appears to treat plaintiffs and defendanys on an equal basis but there still seems to be a bias towards the middle-class who can more easily get ‘respectable’ people to vouch for them.
I have enjoyed many other Iranian films with more obvious ‘issues’ and political discourses but I enjoyed this film because it was so ‘ordinary’ in its story elements, but so extraordinary in its presentation. Not to be missed!
Press Notes available here.
Artificial Eye trailer (Spoiler Warning: the trailer gives much more plot detail than I have included above):