A SEPARATION (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) B+
aka: Nader and Simin, A Separation
Iran (123 mi) 2011 d: Asghar Farhadi Official site
My finding is that your problem is a small problem. —Judge (Mohammad Ebrahimian)
A thoughtful, slowly developing film that is largely sustained by scenes set in small, inhabited rooms where people actually talk to one another, where in this film what they choose to openly acknowledge makes all the difference in the world, as tiny omissions are the secret ingredient that add essential drama to this often subdued story. Not sure why all the unanimous praise for this film, as his earlier efforts are equally superb, but it’s a small, completely unpretentious film, largely one giant squabble that opens the film and continues unabated until the supposed justice is rendered in the lingering final shot, told in an extremely realistic style, mostly through piercingly honest, nonstop dialog written by the director, where there are few traces of stylistic flourish, simply an exposé of everyday life, easily comparable to KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979), though without the histrionic element, as this doesn’t highlight post divorce aftereffects, it deals with all the pre-divorce ramifications. In fact, had people paid attention, as there are opportunities for reconciliation all throughout this story, the results would largely be different. What makes this film so essential is the degree to which choices matter, and not in larger-than-life, long drawn out fights to the finish which are obviously contentious, but in the kind of ordinary talk that takes place every day in people’s lives. In this film, it’s the small moments that matter. Never passing judgment, which is key, the director allows people and their various points of view to interact, where the accumulation of small details eventually escalates into something larger and potentially life threatening, where all reason seems to explode into thin air and self-preservation takes over. While there are small, honorable moments throughout, they are matched by equally despicable moments of lies and deceit where human behavior can become an endurance test for the last one standing. What’s especially unusual is the high quality of acting by all represented parties, where no one really plays the lead, as everyone becomes equally significant, also the relaxed and informal view of Iranian justice at work, as there are no lawyers used and each side is free to speak directly to the judge or one another, but will be removed by a guard if they threaten violence.
Opening in an unpretentious room where a judge calmly listens to an otherwise well-educated and loving mother and father offer their disagreements about their family’s future, where the wife Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to take their teenage daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, yes, daughter of the director) out of the country in pursuit of a better life, while the husband Nader (Peyman Moadi, who wrote the screenplay to Saman Moghadam’s excellent 2006 film CAFÉ SETAREH), agrees to let her go, if she insists, but their daughter stays with him, as he must stay to look after his own father who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Since there is no unanimity of decision, the judge orders them to go home and work it out between themselves. What’s clear from the outset is that is something neither one of them intends to do, as Simin anxiously packs while Nader tries to find a housekeeper to look after his father during the day while he’s at work, both avoiding one another while their daughter sits in the corner and trembles. Perhaps the initial sympathy lies with the husband, as he can’t simply abandon his father, and the daughter has chosen to live with him, so the mother is the odd one out when she leaves, though never ventures far and remains involved. The beleaguered Razieh (Sareh Bayat) is the housekeeper, obviously over-challenged on the first day, as she can’t keep up with full-time demands of an incapacitated elderly patient and look after her own small daughter at the same time, where she’s stymied by the idea of having to clean up after he soils himself, wondering if it’s a sin, a violation of Islamic law which forbids the touching of any man except your husband. Her harrowing experience is made all the more difficult due to her own pregnancy, where lifting this guy around all day is just not possible, agreeing to stay on for a few days until they can find somebody else.
After the initial introduction of the principal characters, the rest of the film is a continual shift of truth and perception, where events occur that require lawful intervention, where the courts attempt to determine the truth, but the testimony offered may not be the full truth, where there’s an interesting difference in class division pitting a modern, more affluent family against a more oppressed, fundamentally religious, and economically challenged family, where friendships may sway a neighbor’s or family member’s testimony, where the injured parties feel slighted and dismayed at some of the counter accusations, where both sides continually place blame on others, rarely taking responsibility themselves, where escalating charges may be brought and people imprisoned. In this nightmarish scenario of quickly shifting events, the audience’s sympathies are challenged due to each individual’s circumstances, where the idea of blood money is raised, an ancient idea of reaching an honorable accord between families through the payment of money, which supposedly wipes the slate clean, but individuals have reservations, often hiding something from loved ones. The court has interests in pursuing the truth, investigating and interrogating various parties, each family has their own needs and interests, and there’s a moral or spiritual truth that each individual must answer to. All of these interests collide in a stunning web of moral complexity where no one wants to admit they’re wrong, or see someone wrongfully charged, but people take desperate measures, where children are used as battering rams in the pursuit of justice, where all they want is for their parents to stay together, no matter the cost. It’s an intricate design how all these pieces of the puzzle, when moved in a different manner, will result in a differing outcome. But how can anyone predict the future or know what’s best? And even once justice is rendered, is this any kind of acceptable outcome? A microcosm of society at large, this flawed and deeply humane view of how people’s lives and interests intersect becomes a highly personalized view of the pursuit of justice.