A Separation—the fifth feature by Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi—is an urgently shot courtroom drama designed to put you in the jury box. Dispensing with preliminaries, it opens at a judicial hearing where, facing the camera that stands in for the judge, a quarrelsome husband and wife each make their case.
Both are middle-class members of the Tehran intelligentsia. Simin (Leila Hatami) has finally obtained official permission for her family to move abroad, but husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) has apparently changed his mind. He feels obligated to care for his aged, Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, and, in order to leave the country, Simin is compelled to sue for divorce. Which spouse is being selfish? What’s best for their 10-year-old daughter, Termeh?
Simin’s petition is denied. (“Your problem is a small problem,” the judge concludes.) She moves in with her parents; Nader stays with his father, and Termeh does, too. Everybody is super-stressed. Without Simin, Nader needs a caretaker to look after the old man and hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a slightly younger, less educated, equally anxious woman who brings her small daughter to work with her and has taken the job without the knowledge of her devout, unemployed husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini).
A Separation has already established a hectic, bustling visual style—one thing after another, mainly in medium close-up—and, with all players in position, it heads directly into a real crisis. Nader comes home to find his father’s wrists tied to the bed, with Razieh out on an errand. They have words; fired and (perhaps gratuitously) accused of stealing, Razieh demands her wages, is shoved out of the apartment, falls down the stairs, and (Nader later discovers) winds up in the hospital. Turns out she was pregnant and has suffered a miscarriage. Thus the original case is subsumed in a larger one. Hodjat files a complaint, and, according to the law, Nader could be guilty of murder.
Farhadi has called his movie “a detective story without any detectives” and structured events so that the viewer is compelled to mentally review a number of earlier, seemingly inconsequential events. As with the divorce proceedings, the miscarriage case is tried in a small room by a one-man judge-jury–prosecuting attorney. Largely unable to control his rage, Hodjat argues with witnesses, butts in on the questioning, and, at one point, manages to get himself arrested by self-righteously telling the judge to “fear God.” Not that this helps Nader, who is deemed guilty even by his wife—she assumes that he knew Razieh was pregnant when he pushed her.
With its two couples warring on two fronts on behalf of their offspring, A Separation is an Iranian analogue to Roman Polanski’s recent parents-in-conflict drama Carnage, but the stakes are higher, the class lines sharper, the pace more grueling, and the action (though not confined to a single apartment like Carnage is), largely played out in stairwells and hallways, more claustrophobic: Each of the four principals is trapped in (or defined by) an individual nexus of social attitudes, family obligations, financial concerns, and moral beliefs that Farhadi seems disinclined to judge.
Given the adult confusion, it’s the two young children who have the clearest vision, or at least the most acute sense of the situation. What’s fascinating is how the various issues—religious or practical—are played out in these two quite different families, yet always come down to irreconcilable differences between rebellious women and their stiff-necked, controlling men. The meek and pious Razieh becomes as recalcitrant in her way—which is to say, as true to her nature—as the apparently godless Simin.
Everyone has their reasons, but not all reasons are equal. Whether as a good neorealist or, given his own situation as a filmmaker in Iran, just a canny realist, Farhadi resists the notion of narrative closure. As the great Sam Fuller wrapped up Run of the Arrow, “The end of this story will be written by you!”