A Separation (2011)

Dir. Asghar Farhadi. Starring Peyman Moaadi, Sarina Farhadi, Sareh Bayat

I adore the first scene of this movie, because it is so terribly frank. The room itself is bare, with gray walls and handsome, but simple, wooden chairs. Nader (Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a married couple in front of a judge. She wants to divorce him, while he seems more or less apathetic about the whole business. He is only roused when he is defending his father, who has Alzheimer’s and who requires significant care at home. The passionate often look the most foolish, and as the judge – who remains unseen – pierces her argument with little holes, we begin to feel more and more sympathetic to him. She becomes shrill; he stays more or less calm. She wants to divorce him because he will not leave the country with her, but the law does not allow divorce for that kind of thing. If he beat her, for example, then she would have a case, but otherwise it would need to be a mutual agreement. The two of the leave the room and the scene ends. Farhadi places the viewer where the judge would be; at first glance,  we are being invited to sit in judgment on the characters. Nader and Simin jostle for position in front of us, appeal to us, try to convince us. It’s a scene which haunted me, at any rate. Throughout the film, Nader’s sex, his affected air of detachment, his knowledge of when to strike a blow, his social position: all of these will be marshaled to protect him from his own lies. Farhadi’s meaning could not be clearer: even when you’re in the judge’s seat by invitation, maybe you shouldn’t bother at all.

The film, though it’s terrifically brisk in its last ninety minutes, takes it first half-hour without emphasizing much pace. The life of the apartment is made clear enough. Nader and Simin send their daughter, Termeh (Farhadi), to a private school, and someone has to pick her up afterwards. Nader’s father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) is slow-moving, quiet, and basically helpless. He cannot be left alone, and it becomes clear as Simin moves out that someone else is going to have to fill the post of cleaner and sometimes caretaker for the old man. Simin has asked a friend to recommend a woman to clean the house; the woman’s sister-in-law, Razieh (Bayat), needs whatever income she can get but wonders if Nader couldn’t pay more. 300,000 rial is not a lot, she says, not with the long commute on a few different bus lines. Nader is firm. He can’t pay more, and she takes it. It quickly becomes clear that while she is virtuous and pious, she is not necessarily a good fit for the job. The old man’s condition gets worse almost as soon as she takes charge of the housekeeping; he becomes incontinent, and she makes a call, presumably to an imam, to ask if cleaning this helpless man would be sinful. It seems that she is willing enough to do so out of her own decency, but that she fears doing the wrong thing in the eyes of God. At one point she has to go out in the street to chase down Nader’s father, who has gone out to a newsstand to get the paper. Aside from that – though it is hard to tell under her clothes – she is some months pregnant, and sometimes gets dizzy. Apart from these problems, it becomes clear that she irritates Nader, who puts on a good front but is thin-skinned; it’s anybody’s guess if the divorce is what makes him thin-skinned. After an antsy first few days – at one point it looks like he’s going to hire her husband, Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini), who is keen to take the work and who promises to look after Nader’s father like he’s his own.

Then disaster strikes, and so rapidly after the measured pace of the first act of the film that it’s almost breathtaking. In an incident where the climax is shielded from us because of the rippling glass of the door, Nader throws Razieh out of the house. He believes she has stolen money; she offers to swear on any holy item or concept that she has not done so (and we’re inclined to believe her). Farhadi’s camera is natural, moving like an observer with stiff limbs who is not much inclined to rock us back and forth but who will certainly move around to see as much as s/he can. In this case the camera is in the wrong spot for us to make an even judgment of what’s happened. We see that Nader shoves Razieh out the door, but what she hits is unclear. We know that she is holding her stomach, that she is being helped downstairs. She miscarries. And Nader could face one to three years in prison for murder.

The rest of the film is an intricate sort of dance, in which we are perhaps a little more mindful of Nader than we were in the first scene. Razieh’s husband, who has been out of work for months, is almost unhinged in the judge’s office. He frequently undercuts Nader with violent outbursts and before, at the hospital, went after Nader but punched Leila instead. Nader has a way of defending himself which seems more measured, if equally vehement, and so he seems more convincing than Hojjat. His case is that while he should not have pushed Razieh, he did not know that she was pregnant. Witnesses – other middle-class witnesses, like Termeh’s tutor and an upstairs neighbor – come out of the woodwork to offer testimony favorable to Nader. Hojjat cries out a conspiracy against himself and his wife, who are poor, and while mentally we can recognize he makes fair points, emotionally he is too crude to carry his case. People who shout that everything opposing them is some cover-up may be right, but they are hardly convincing. As Nader makes headway against Hojjat and Razieh (who fades into the background before making a totally shocking and yet not unpredictable admission late in the film), he loses ground against his family. As Hojjat, still very much unemployed, begins to wait around menacingly by her daughter’s school and in one case comes in and harangues Termeh, Simin begins to fear for her daughter’s safety. Pay the blood money, she says, and ensure your daughter’s safety. Nader is coldly livid, and for the first time treats his wife like a divorcee as opposed to some visiting dignitary: You always ran away from problems, and you’re not going to solve mine that way. Even if Nader can hold Simin back, his quiet but omnipresent daughter is bound to pick him apart. Termeh, alone out of the characters in the film, seems less concerned with her father’s guilt or innocence as a legal matter than as a family one. She is convinced (and wrongly, immaturely, in my sight) that her mother will come back home if her father gets off; simultaneously, she seems happy to play with Somayeh, Hojjat and Razieh’s little girl, even at the greatest point of enmity between the two families. At one point, Nader is on the warpath and intends to call Razieh’s gynecologist to get some dirt on her situation. The case against her father is that he must have known Razieh was pregnant because it was mentioned while he was within hearing distance of a conversation Termeh’s tutor had with Razieh about it. Termeh is succinct with her father while he helps her with some homework. The gynecologist’s number came up during the pregnancy conversation, she says. How could you hear about the number and not hear about Razieh’s pregnancy? Nader is trapped, and in one of the few funny moments of the movie, tries to redirect their attention to her math homework. He eventually caves. Yes, I knew she was pregnant, he said. And if you want me to go to jail for it, then I’ll turn myself in.

Nader has a talent for twisting other people’s words around. (Farhadi’s screenplay was justly nominated for an Oscar, incidentally.) Often someone will level a charge at him, and he will respond by expressing shock that he is the one being accused of that fault. He does it with Razieh and Hojjab and Simin with equal fluency and, a little surprisingly, equal force. More than once he manipulates his sixth-grade daughter by threatening the family’s total breakup should he be convicted, or should his will in some matter be contravened. Simin is outspoken but not often wrong. Nader is as decent as his wife says he is in their first divorce hearing, but too cunning to respect. Termeh is a true innocent who is taken advantage of by her father in particular, and as much as we come to hate him for his cruelty to Razieh, we have to be shocked by the way he treats his daughter. The film ends with the divorce finally coming through; Simin and Nader have left the choice of who Termeh will live with up to her, who had had such hopes that her parents might not really divorce. We don’t find out who she chooses; she refuses to say in front of her parents and she walks away from both as they wait outside the courtroom. And really, who would she go with? The mother she blames for breaking up the family, or the father who is, by the strict definition of the law, a murderer, and by even the loosest and most favorable definition of his actions, a liar? How would we judge?

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