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.
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