I haven’t seen a film from Iran that I have loved as much as “A Separation” since I enjoyed “Children of Heaven” (1997). “A Separation”, winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, is an Iranian “Rashomon”. This masterpiece of cinema lays out multiple stories unfolding from six principal characters. Stripped of any vestige of a moral absolute, in spite of the low dramatic temperature of the filming, viewers will hang on every scene and every word. The vast middle ground of truth and falsehood leaves you spellbound.
The storyline is simple. A young upper class schoolteacher , Simin, yearns for a better life for her daughter, Termeh, and wants to leave Iran. Nader, her husband, however, is deeply devoted to his father, who suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s. Consequently, Nader refuses to leave his father behind, knowing that immigration is no longer an option for him. The couple has a divorce hearing before a magistrate. With her husband’s permission, Simin is allowed to leave the country but her daughter, Termeh, chooses to stay with her father. The conflict over custody for Termeh unwinds, and with it, their moral convictions.
“A Separation” offers a rare view of ordinary Iranians–both affluent and struggling– in an urban center. The upscale apartment is contrasted with the grittier working class district in the south. Simin and Nader’s lives are a world away from the pious, poor districts of Tehran. Thin slivers of religious conviction and family bonds unravel in unexpected and nuanced ways as a desperate married woman (Razieh) offers to become the caretaker for the aged father. Minor misunderstandings morph into a slow-motion nightmare that threatens to destroy everything and everyone in its path.
Hand-held cameras lend a documentary quality and visceral sense of realism throughout. The superb script carefully conceals the central incident so we’re never quite sure who’s telling the truth. We can see the logic of everyone’s position, their good intentions and their emotions while we vacillate on whose version of the truth to believe. The director’s only agenda seems to be to express empathy. Although the judge may be tending against our own sympathies, we understand why he does so and may be correct to do so. That a director can make such a sympathetic film in such a troubled time is a tribute to his skill.
In this compelling drama about the dissolution of two families, all six characters feel justified in their own particular grievances. The film accomplishes an extraordinary feat in not selecting sides in the midst of so many moral contradictions. “A Separation” ultimately separates us from our own need for intellectual clarity and security in our values. Every single performance is noteworthy and natural, perhaps especially the performances of the two young actresses who play Temreh (the incredible Sarina Farhadi, director Asghar Farhadi’s daughter) and Somayeh (the doe-eyed precocious Kimia Hosseini), the five-year old daughter of the caretaker Razieh. The film’s ending is so iconic I could think of no alternative that underscores the theme more faithfully—namely, the thin places—the membrane between what is a lie and what is truth– fragile and easily torn.