Film review: A Separation

by David Larsen / 21 April, 2012
A Separation should have been a contender for Best Picture at the Oscars, says David Larsen.


When Nader and Hodjat meet for the first time, there is a pane of bulletproof glass between them. Well, there would be. Nader works in a bank. Hodjat has come in to apply for a job as caregiver to Nader’s elderly father, who has Alzheimer’s, and needs constant supervision; Nader’s wife, Simin, who used to care for the old man during the day, has just left him.

The full Farsi title of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, which only won this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, though in a world where the Oscars meant anything it would have been one of the two serious contenders to win Best Picture outright, is Jodaeiye Nader az Simin: “The Separation of Nader from Simin”. The English title Nader and Simin, A Separation has been used at some European film festivals, but in most countries, whatever the local language, the film is trading under the more ambiguous twoword title. It’s a much better title. Let’s get back to that pane of glass.

There is no reason to pay any particular attention to the glass when Nader and Hodjat meet. We’ve seen hints that the two men come from different classes and stand on opposite sides of Iran’s Grand Canyon-scale secular-religious divide, but hints only, and there is no suggestion yet that a life-and-death legal struggle is about to engulf their two families. At the same time, they’re leaning in and projecting their voices past the barrier, as one does when conducting business across the counter in a busy bank; it’s impossible not to note that their conversation is happening in a context specifically designed to address the possibility of violence by keeping people apart. One of the several ways in which Farhadi stands head and shoulders above most film-makers is that A Separation could be described as a formal study in physical metaphors for social and emotional estrangement, and yet there is never the least sense that effortful image construction is distorting a scene. If I were asked to provide evidence that “symbolically charged naturalism” is not a contradiction in terms, this film would be my Exhibit A.

Probably Farhadi’s greatest strength, at least in terms of doing justice to a story of warring perspectives – and certainly the most obvious reason the film is at once so gripping and so poignant – is his ability to balance rich character creation with dispassionate, even-handed narration. By the midpoint, two married couples are entangled in three interlocking legal actions, on matters ranging from child custody to causing a miscarriage by pushing a pregnant woman down a flight of stairs. (Under Iranian law, culpable homicide.) These four people have two young daughters between them. Every one of the six is allowed the dignity of a coherent point of view, and none of the minor characters ranged around them is merely a cipher.

This gives Farhadi an expansive field of play; he can pull our sympathies six different ways at once, and he does. It also allows him, almost incidentally, to dissect his country’s soul, as an apparent side effect of exploring the marital, generational and ideological gulfs dividing his characters. This is that rare thing, a tightly focused, absorbing story about a small group of people that finds the general in the particular without ever needing to broaden its gaze.

The cast is so good their excellence is almost invisible. The two child actors – teenager Sarina Farhadi (the director’s daughter) and pre-schooler Kimia Hosseini – stand out because it’s so unusual to see children vanish into their roles to this degree. But the four adult principles all deliver remarkable performances. In the very first scene, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) sit side by side, facing a judge, and dispute each other’s accounts of their impending divorce. From their first words, they’re vivid, strongly sympathetic, and entirely at odds. Pity the judge. Except we don’t see the judge. Nader and Simin speak facing the camera. The judge is us.

A SEPARATION, directed by Asghar Farhadi. Click here for cinemas and times.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Hardcore exercise could be harming your sex drive
71590 2017-04-29 00:00:00Z Health

Hardcore exercise could be harming your sex drive

by Nicky Pellegrino

According to new research, pushing your exercising to the limits can have dire consequences for health, libido and fertility.

Read more
The power of an electric cargo bike in Auckland
71804 2017-04-29 00:00:00Z Urbanism

The power of an electric cargo bike in Auckland

by Paperboy

"It’s a way back to the freedom of youth, when kicking around on a bike with friends was one of life’s great joys."

Read more
Politicians aren’t talking to us this election year, but to Winston Peters
71902 2017-04-28 14:08:09Z Politics

Politicians aren’t talking to us this election yea…

by Jane Clifton

We don't want any David Cunliffe cod-bogan attempts to get down with the peeps, but MPs seem to be going way too far in the other direction this year.

Read more
9th Floor: Jenny Shipley on how 'middle class welfare' is morally bankrupt
71856 2017-04-28 09:53:00Z Politics

9th Floor: Jenny Shipley on how 'middle class welf…

by Guyon Espiner

Dame Jenny Shipley on being the first woman Prime Minister, plus coups and coalitions, welfare reform and Winston Peters.

Read more
Win a double pass to exclusive screening of McLaren
71854 2017-04-28 09:39:24Z Win

Win a double pass to exclusive screening of McLare…

by The Listener

McLaren is the definitive tale of New Zealander Bruce McLaren, who created a motor racing empire from his shed.

Read more
Win a double pass to Doc Edge Festival
71847 2017-04-28 09:30:01Z Win

Win a double pass to Doc Edge Festival

by The Listener

Doc Edge Festival is one of Australasia’s premier international documentary film festivals.

Read more
First look: Poké Poké
Health Minister dismisses chocolate fundraiser ban
71842 2017-04-28 09:07:08Z Nutrition

Health Minister dismisses chocolate fundraiser ban…

by RNZ

Should schools be selling chocolate to raise funds? The Health Minister says it's ok, but nutrition experts disagree.

Read more