The most intractable disagreements are those in which each party believes himself to be the true victim, the one most deserving of an apology. A Separation dramatizes that essential truth as well as any film I’ve ever seen, and it does so by playing fair. The four adults at odds in Asghar Farhadi’s moving domestic drama all have legitimate grievances, even as they also have all contributed to the destructive mire in which they find themselves.
It’s a lose-lose mess, but although A Separation is poignant and sad, it’s not depressing. Farhadi’s careful unspooling of his tale keeps the movie from wallowing. In fact, the movie is outright suspenseful, perfectly paced, both tense and thoughtful, and the actors are so talented and quietly expressive that watching them is a joy, even in an unhappy context.
As A Separation opens, Simin (Leila Hatami) is being denied a divorce from her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi). Simin wants to leave Iran for the sake of their prepubescent daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), but Nader refuses, not because he is unsympathetic to her feelings but because he cannot bear to leave his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. Trapped, Simin retreats to her parents’ house—Termeh refuses to leave the family home—and Nader is forced to hire Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a poor young mother, to watch his father while he is at work. Overwhelmed by the job, Razieh leaves the old man at home while she runs a personal errand, precipitating a confrontation between Nader and Razieh that soon involves Simin too, as well as Razieh’s unstable husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), while Termeh—and Razieh and Hodjat’s own small daughter—look on with increasingly disillusioned eyes.
The conflicts here are myriad, going far beyond the estrangement of husband and wife. The comfortably middle-class Simin and Nader sometimes seem to live in a different world from the struggling Razieh and Hodjat—a chasm widened by the clash between the former couple’s secularism and the latter’s religiosity. Worse, the mercilessly grinding gears of the legal system cannot deal properly with Simin and Nader’s crumbling yet loving marriage or the storm of accusations that fly between them and Razieh and Hodjat, and the sticky question of honor gums up the works even more.
Thematically, A Separation is dense and meticulously composed, so it’s a wonder that Farhadi finds a way to populate it with people rather than chess pieces. The tidy diagrammed contrasts between sexes, classes, and religious beliefs invite us to make assumptions, but then the movie challenges those assumptions—not through melodramatic contradiction (she’s not A, she’s Z!) but rather through compassionate complication (she is A, but she’s also B and C and D). The actors meet the delicacies of Farhadi’s screenplay beautifully, both in the loud, uncomfortable talking-over-one-another scenes and in the hushed, almost wordless scenes when what is left unspoken sounds loudest of all.
The plot plays with assumptions too, generating suspense not only from the question of what will happen next but also from the question of what has already happened. At first, we think we know—we see most of it—but it’s all too easy to fill in the seemingly insignificant gaps with the wrong notions. The slipperiness of truth is powerfully apparent in the ambiguity on screen, and even more disconcertingly, “truth” eventually seems to be beside the point.
But perhaps the most powerful element of A Separation is its universality. Hijabs notwithstanding, the conflicts here are immediately recognizable, not exotic. Nader’s loneliness in caring for a loved one who can no longer recognize him; Simin’s struggle to build a life for herself and her child in a society that too often feels hostile to her values; Razieh’s exhausted efforts to shoulder far too much responsibility for the sake of those she loves; Hodjat’s desperate demands for respect from others when he’s already lost his self-respect—these trials aren’t exclusive to Iran; they are truly universal. Gentle and humane, A Separation begins by challenging our assumptions about its characters and ends by challenging our assumptions about ourselves.