Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 Academy Award-winning fifth feature film tells the multilayered tale of a family disintegration presenting contrasts and conflicts of gender, class and religion, combining classic Iranian domestic cinema and neorealism with a courtroom drama. MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILERS
‘A Separation’ enhances suspense and surprises the viewer with the use of its minimalist, documentary-style narrative and objective camerawork by only showing certain parts of the story. The visible and audible action of the plot only offers partial details of the complex whole, while a wide web of story information has to be inferred in order to fully understand cause and effect, story background and character motivation in the movie.
The film begins with Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), a married middle class couple filing for divorce. They share a flat in Tehran with their eleven-year-old daughter, Termeh, and Nader’s father who suffers from Alzheimer’s and needs to be taken care of. After hiring Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a pregnant woman for the job, a series of misfortunate events leads to Nader’s accusation of being responsible for Razieh’s miscarriage. He has to face court and also the woman’s aggressive husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). Throughout several court scenes the mystery revolves around the fact that neither the characters of the story, nor the audience knows the exact details about what actually happened – the truth is only revealed in the end of the film.
Farhadi chooses not to show the actual event that triggers most of the conflicts in the film. Razieh realises that Nader’s ill father has left the building, and finds him trying to cross the busy road. After a cut, we see the family back in the apartment. The editing happens to be so inconspicuous that the leap does not draw exceptional attention to itself. We could think the missing portion held no significance but the story later reveals that Razieh has been hit by a car, resulting in the death of her unborn child. The narration stays objective at the end of the film as, under the pressure of lying under oath, she admits that Nader is not responsible for the death of her baby and tells about the accident. This ellipsis hides important details from us. Seemingly ordinary events get great significance later on.
What happens on the stairs? We see Nader pushing Razieh but we do not see her actually falling. The camera, like Nader, stays in the apartment, a door away from the accident. Could Nader cause the miscarriage? This is one of the most important, recurring questions of the plot. We are not sure who is right and who is wrong. Just like the judge in the courtroom, we can only rely on the words of the characters. The movie is objective, does not take sides, only external behaviour is shown. We are free to sympathise with all of the characters.
Farhadi is no stranger to this type of storytelling – in his 2009 movie ‘About Elly’ a teacher is invited to a weekend at the seaside by a family where she goes missing while looking after the kids who play in the water. Has she drowned or has she simply left without saying anything? The film shows the aftermath of the event, again, only offering the answer at the very end. Similarly, ‘A Separation’ presents an it-could-happen-to-you conflict and places essential story events outside of the plot. It is a perfect example (as well as Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Taste of Cherry’ or ‘Close-up’) of new Iranian cinema, where the tales of everyday people are presented in a mise-en-scène of realistic performances and original settings, through a cinematographic style that blends fiction film and documentary film features. In this case, a tale of mystery. As the director himself says in an interview:
‘A Separation is effectively a detective film […], except that there is no sign of a detective. It is the spectator who plays that role. Based on a succession of clues, the spectator leads his own inquiry. […] You could say that A Separation was a detective film told in the style of a documentary.’
While the divorce of Nader and Simin frames the film (the bergmanesque opening shot in media res explains their situation), the separation is not in the centre of the plot, it rather becomes a secondary, underlying storyline. Behind the main conflict a wife becomes estranged from her husband after long years of marriage as misunderstandings, pride and unsaid words ruin their relationship and lead to their divorce. Their daughter, Termeh gets to choose which of her parents to live with – her decision is not shown. The last static shot of the two parents waiting in the hallway with the credits rolling leaves the audience frustrated without any answers, there is no catharsis – resembling Italian neo-realist classics such as Vittorio De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’ where the protagonist is left in despair being unable to recover a stolen bicycle he cannot keep his job without.
The film doesn’t only talk about its characters but the country they live in as well. Simin wants to leave the country with her daughter in hope of a better living environment. Although she cannot convince her husband to support her decision, the actions of the plot seem to justify her reasons. The oppression of women, the tension between social classes, the pressure of Islamic laws serve as background circumstances but shape the plot at the same time, suggesting that the characters might be all victims of these circumstances. (This underlying message does not label ‘A Separation’ a propaganda film though, in contrast to Jafar Panahi’s 2011 documentary ‘This is not a Film’ about Iranian government and censorship.) Farhadi’s mirror to society is only implied, rather than using explicit references. From a country with such a strong political censorship, the country that blacklisted and imprisoned Panahi – this is a great accomplishment.