A wonderful Separation

The Iranian film, A Separation, is hardly obscure; I mean, it won the Oscar for best Foreign Language film, and it’s been lauded by critics all over the country. (100% Rotten Tomatoes score!)  Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, it was approved by Iranian cultural authorities, and received distribution after winning its Oscar.  It was finally delivered to my home by the flying elves employed by Netflix (or, mundanely, the US Postal Service), and my daughter and I finally sat down to see it.

What a remarkable film.  It begins in a shabby looking office: two people, Nader (Payman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), face the camera, making their case to an unseen magistrate.  Simin has, after years of dealing with red tape and hassle, gotten the paperwork together enabling her family to leave Iran; the visa will expire soon, and she wants to use it. Either Nader comes with her, or she’ll go on her own, taking their daughter with her, and filing for divorce. Her husband, she says, is a good man, a decent, caring man, and she loves him, but she cannot, cannot stay in Iran.  Nader says he can’t go.  His elderly father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), lost in the mists of Alzheimer’s, requires constant care.  He can’t leave him.  And Simin won’t go without her eleven-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), who won’t go without her father.

It’s an impossible situation.  We can see both sides, we can sympathize with both of these decent, good people, as they struggle with a dilemma without a solution.  And it gets more complicated, morally and personally complex and difficult and awful.

The film covers about a week in the lives of these people.  Nader has to hire a caregiver for his father, his wife having moved out to live with parents.  He hired Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a conservatively religious woman who Simin sort of knows. She’s hardly ideal; she faces a two hour daily commute, and has a small daughter, an eight year old, who has to come with her, and she doesn’t dare even tell her husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini) about the job; caring for a single man, however elderly and infirm, is against his understanding of sharia law.  At one point, the elderly father soils his pants.  Razieh is at a loss.  She has to call her imam and ask if it would be a sin for her to clean him up.

Razieh is also pregnant, though she goes about dressed in full hijaab, and it doesn’t show. She’s a caring woman, but out of her depth with a Alzheimer’s patient.  At one point, the old man leaves the apartment; panicked, she looks everywhere, and finally sees him across the street at a news stand.  Completely lost, he starts across the street, and is nearly hit by a car.

She knows she can’t do the job for long, when Hojjat (who has been out of work for a long time and is repeatedly jailed by his creditors), applies for it, she begs Nader not to tell him she’s been the one providing care.  But then, one day, Nader comes home to find his father laying on the floor, one hand tied to the bed post, and Razieh nowhere to be found.  His father is bruised from his uncomfortable position, and Nader is furious.  Razieh shows up, and will only say that she had to leave, and that she tied the father to the post so he couldn’t run away again.  She offers no further explanation, and Nader fires her, but she won’t leave without her pay.  He then discovers money missing, the same amount he owes her; he accuses her of theft, and shoves her out the door.  Does he push her?  Does she fall down the stairs?  On those questions, the rest of the film rests.

Because, next we learn, she has fallen, and miscarried.  And she accuses Nader of shoving her down the stairs.  Which means, according to Iranian law, Nader may be tried for murder.

Much of the rest of the film takes place in a courtroom; not a formal Western court, with attorneys and juries and a judge in robes, but a seedy little office, where a frustrated, overworked judge sits behind a desk and tries to sort everything out.  The film doesn’t come across as any kind of indictment of Iranian jurisprudence; the judge is just a bureaucrat, sorting out the technicalities of a tough case.  At one point, as Nader and Hojjat yell at each other, the judge pours sugar into his tea, looking harried.

As Westerners, we tend to see Iran as a nightmarish theocracy, and our initial sympathies are with Simin, who wears a scarf on her head, and who just wants out.  Nader seems like a good guy with a tough family situation, not terribly religious but trying to be a good person.  We know these folks.  But a much more complex and interesting view of everyday Iranian life emerges as the film progresses.  It’s one of the things I love best about it, though this jailing people ’cause they owe you money stuff amazed me.  Seriously?

Anyway, the court case comes down to a few simple questions.  Did Nader know Razieh was pregnant?  How hard did he push her?  Did she fall down the stairs, and did that fall cause her miscarriage?  It turns out, everyone in the case lies about their role in it, and for what they consider valid reasons.  And finally, which of her parents will Termeh choose to live with?

Nobody behaves well, and nobody behaves all that badly.  Nothing works out very well, and nobody ends up terribly happy.  It’s such a lovely film, so intelligent and compassionate and thoughtful.  I love films full of this kind of humanity, this level of moral complexity.

It’s a dialogue-heavy film, with subtitles.  It takes some effort to watch.  But it’s worth every second.

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