A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Screenplay: Asghar Farhadi
Stars: Peyman Maadi (Nader), Leila Hatami (Simin), Sareh Bayat (Razieh), Shahab Hosseini (Hodjat), Sarina Farhadi (Termeh), Merila Zare’i (Miss Ghahraii), Ali-Asghar Shahbazi (Nader’s Father), Babak Karimi (Interrogator), Kimia Hosseini (Somayeh), Shirin Yazdanbakhsh (Simin’s Mother), Sahabanu Zolghadr (Azam)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2011
Country: Iran
A Separation DVD
A SeparationAsghar Farhadi’s A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) is a devastating, slow-burn portrait of how dozens of seemingly insignificant actions and decisions—some conscious, some otherwise—can accumulate into a ruinous scenario. The film opens in the midst of a judicial hearing in Tehran, Iran, where a middle-class married couple of 14 years, Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), sit before an off-screen interrogating judge. Simin has filed for divorce because she has spent 18 months trying to get them a visa so they and their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) can move out of Iran, but Nader refuses to leave because he feels obligated to take care of his elderly father, who lives with them and is suffering from Alzheimer’s. The sequence, which unfolds in a single, static take, ends with the judge declaring “I find that your problem is a small one” and sending them home without a divorce.

They separate anyway, with Simin moving back in her with family while Nader stays in their apartment with Termeh (who refuses to go with her mother) and his ailing father. In order to keep working and make sure that his father is cared for, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a woman in her mid-thirties who is desperate enough for work that she is willing to commute a long distance and take less money than she thinks she deserves. Although she is religiously devout (she worries that it may be a sin for her to change the incontinent father’s pants), Razieh hides her job from her strict, unemployed husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) because it is not appropriate for her to be working for a single man. Because part of the film’s power is the way its narrative unfolds in subtle and unpredictable ways (those expecting an Iranian version of Scenes From a Marriage are headed down the wrong track), I will be as vague as possible in suggesting that the work arrangement with Razieh does not end well, and a rash, but entirely understandable, action by Nader lands him in a judicial hearing opposite Razieh and Hodjat, who is hot-tempered and impatient and quite possibly dangerous.

While Farhadi’s screenplay moves steadily from scene to scene in a conventional fashion, its brilliance lies in how tiny, seemingly insignificant details (like where Nader is standing while Razieh has a conversation with Termeh’s tutor, or Razieh needing to clean up a broken garbage bag on the stairwell outside the apartment) steadily accrue, building toward a situation that becomes irresolvable because no one is willing to compromise. Like the characters on-screen, we are working with only partial information—bits of conversation, glimpses of events—yet we constantly feel the need to stake a claim to some sense of “truth.” The problem is that everyone is simultaneously right and wrong, which is established in the opening sequence when Simin tells Nader there is no point in staying to take care of a father who doesn’t even know who he is, to which Nader replies, “But I know him.” Simin is right and Nader is right, hence the film’s fundamental philosophical and moral dilemma: How to account for multiple, sometimes contradictory, layers of right and wrong?

Having only seen the film once, I can attest to its arresting dramatic power, but I sense that A Separation is an experience that rewards twice, but in an entirely different way the second time around because we will be paying attention to that which previously slid by noiselessly, our senses hyper-attuned to all the points at which the situation starts going south. While a second viewing would alter our perception of the film’s narrative unfolding significantly, I imagine that the characters would still strike us with the same complicated, stomach-wrenching sense of conflict that accompanies any dispute in which there is both right and wrong on all sides. As the story develops, our allegiances shift as Farhadi reveals new dimensions and insights into the characters and what they are or are not hiding.

We know that Nader did something rash, something that he probably would not have done had he been fully in control of his emotions, but at the same time it is hard to escape the feeling that he is being railroaded by Razieh and Hodjat. We know that he is, in some sense, a good man because of his dedication to his father, but does that mean that he is not above twisting the truth to his own benefit, especially if he can justify it via the very behavior that attests to his virtue? By the same token, Simin’s eventual involvement and attempts to hammer out a compromise between the feuding parties smacks of her own self-interest, as she is still beholden to her desire to leave the country, something that only a divorce from Nader can make possible. And even when we think that Farhadi is presenting us with a clearly problematic character in Hodjat, who is bitter and resentful and outwardly aggressive, there are layers of understanding and deceit that both exonerate and further damn him. The only character who seems at all above the fray is Termeh, which makes her eventual, inescapable manipulation by her parents that much more heart-breaking, as is her blunt entry into the adult world of self-justified lies.

In short, A Separation is a brilliant, mesmerizing drama, incredibly well-acted by its ensemble cast (which richly deserved its multiple awards at the Berlin Film Festival). Like his screenplay, Farhadi’s direction is concise, elegant, and economical, weaving its artistry into a functional, documentary-like visual style that slyly comments on the interpersonal dynamics (note how he frequently keeps multiple characters on screen but frames them in ways that emphasize their emotional distance). While Farhadi is clearly commenting on the complexities of a modern Iranian society functioning under the strict letter of Islamic law, the core issues in A Separation cut across cultures and religions and will be immediately accessible to anyone with a heart and a mind. Much like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), which would make for an interesting companion piece, A Separation presents us with strong-willed characters locked into the kind of struggle from which no one emerges unscathed, even those who “win,” if that’s even possible.

A Separation DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • Persian/Farsi 3.0 LCR
  • French 3.0 LCR
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French
  • Audio commentary by writer/director Asghar Farhadi
  • “An Evening with Asghar Farhadi” featurette
  • “Birth of a Director” featurette
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • DistributorSony Pictures Home Entertainment
    Release DateAugust 21, 2012

    The DVD presentation of A Separation looks good and clean. The image is generally sharp, and the color schemes are appropriately muted in favor of grays and earth tones. Balance and contrasts seem good throughout, although I can only imagine how much better it looks in high-def. The three-channel soundtrack is more than adequate for the film, which features no extradiegetic musical score. Dialogue is clear and well placed, and ambient sound effects work nicely toward creating a palpable sense of environment.
    Writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s screen-specific audio commentary is in Farsi with English subtitles and is certainly worth a listen. It is particularly interesting listening to him talk about the film’s various narrative and thematic ambiguities, although you shouldn’t expect explicit explanations, as he asserts his discomfort with explaining things about the film and prefers that viewers come away with their own interpretations. “An Evening with Asghar Farhadi” is a recording of a half-hour Q&A session after a screening of the film, while “Birth of a Director” featurette is a one-on-one interview with Farhadi conducted by a French journalist.

    Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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