Bringing Us Together, by David Bax
Asghar Farhadi’s powerful new film, A Separation, begins with a married Iranian couple, Nader and Simin, arguing their case for and against separation in a small room before a judge. Simin, the wife, believes she should have the right to leave the country and take her daughter if her husband refuses to go with her. Nader, the husband, who cares for his aging and senile father, believes the daughter should stay with him if his wife chooses to leave. At this point, the film would seem that it’s going to be concerned with the customs of marriage and separation in Iran and the ways in which the law favors the man. It is about this (there’s a wonderful, small moment where the wife has to backpedal from the implication she’s made that her daughter will have a better life growing up outside of Iran). As it turns out, though, this film is about much, much more.
By the time the film has reached the end of its two hours, the number of topics it’s explored – and how richly it’s managed to explore them – is staggering. A Separation is a look at marriage, religion, law and the upbringing of children in ways that are fascinatingly specific to Iran. Beyond that, however, it finds rich soil in topics that are universal.
Chiefly, the film is about honesty and principle. Farhadi, both as writer and director, manages to find a number of ways in which these two pillars of character painfully and destructively clash with each other. He causes you to ponder seriously whether it is right, or even possible, to be dishonest in order to uphold a higher ideal. After that, he makes you consider what a principle is worth in terms pragmatic and humane. To what extent should you stand by your morals when doing so might get people hurt?
Despite its determined philosophical underpinnings and its rather busy plot, the film’s true beauty is its subtlety. Farhadi’s naturalism is astounding. This is as uncontrived as a story gets. When you stand back from the work at its conclusion, you see how meticulously every domino had to be placed to propel the film to its sickeningly banal tragedy of an ending. Yet, when you’re experiencing it, it’s impossible to see the gears working at all.
No matter how sure his directorial hand, of course, Farhadi cannot have achieved this film all on his own. His stable of actors is uniformly terrific. Sareh Bayat and Shahab Hosseini, as the other married couple who get caught up in extensive legal tangles are brilliant. At times, you hate them, pity them and are scared by them. Often, you’ll have different feelings toward each of them at the same time. Meanwhile, Sarina Farhadi as Nader and Simin’s daughter, Termeh, is a potent talent. And Babik Karimi, who plays the judge, delivers what has got to be one of the most well-rounded tertiary characters in cinema this year. He is a compassionate man but also a dutiful one who is respectful of the laws he upholds, all of which he believes in very strongly. He is fair but only by the definition of fairness allowed within the system he represents. He is a fascinating, infuriating, reasonable man. Truly, however, as the title suggests, the story is about the man and woman at its center, played by Peyman Maadi (Nader) and Leila Hatami (Simin).
At the beginning of the story, Farhadi is clearly playing to our Western values. That in addition to the unavoidable fact of Hatami’s beauty put us squarely on Simin’s side. Despite Nader’s diligent attending to his father, we still are poised to think of him as a domineering patriarch such as Alfred Molina played in Not Without My Daughter. Yet after the first scene, a breathtaking, single, static shot of the couple speaking to a judge we hear but don’t see, Simin disappears for some time. Left alone with Nader, we soon begin to see how flawed is our hasty judgment of his character. As we see his struggle to be both a provider and father to his daughter and a caretaker to his father, we begin to understand and perhaps even favor him. For the rest of the movie, Farhadi uses a frustrating series of misfortunes to draw them both toward the center. At last, we see them as we should all people. They are flawed but redeemable. In a word, they are human.
A Separation is an educational and sympathetic inside look at the way things work in Iran, a country led by a cartoonish demon and filled with people we too rarely consider. Ultimately, though, it contains truths that are too big to be about one nation. Ultimately, it is a film about people.