A Separation Review
“I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
This, or a variation thereof depending on religion (or non-religion), is the oath you take when giving evidence in a UK court of law. Yet not everybody regards it in quite the same way. Whilst some believe so strongly in their chosen holy book that swearing upon it demands nothing less than the absolute truth, others adopt a “lying for the greater good” stance; some believe ‘truth’ is a relative concept in any event, and others still have no qualms about just outright lying on oath. Indeed nowadays taking an oath feels more like just another procedural hurdle; reciting words that may no longer really mean anything to the individual saying them.
Imagine a world where we were all bound by our word; where swearing to tell the truth really did compel us to do precisely that. Not a shade of the truth, not a variation of the truth; the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – as it is theoretically supposed to be. How much simpler would this make disputes, simple court cases, and even murder trials?
There would no longer be a need to spend hundreds of man-hours on cases which currently require witnesses, experts, and the adducing of a wealth of supporting evidence to prove liability, or guilt. All you would have to do is ask the person in question to tell the truth under oath.
A Separation, the Oscar-Winning Best Foreign Language Film of 2012, not only gives us a keen insight into what it is like to live in another world – Iran – but also offers up a far more universal commentary on the varying degrees of truth and lies that we trade in across our lives, showing the potential for horrific consequences on both sides of the ostensibly black-and-white coin.
Simin wants to go to America. Her husband of 14 years, Nader, is compelled to stay due to his ailing father, whose Alzheimer’s requires round-the-clock attention. He does not want to get a divorce, but feels that, by insisting upon leaving the country – despite the fact that she knows that he has obligations which prevent him from going – Simin is effectively saying that she wants to leave him. But he is not unreasonable: he will not oppose her going. However, he will not give his permission to let her take their 11-year old daughter, Termeh, with her, and she is the main motivation behind Simin’s desperate desire to flee her oppressive homeland.
During their period of separation, Nader is forced to hire help to take care of his father during the day, and so hires Razieh, who takes up the job without first seeking her husband’s permission. After a terrible tragedy, a chain of events is set in motion which threatens to take away the liberty of any and maybe even all of the parties involved, as the two conflicting couples both insist upon their version of events, choosing every word they say carefully – and paying the price of any carelessness – as they are fighting their battle within a very unforgiving arena.
The direct translation of the original Persian title – “Jodaeiye Nader az Simin” – is The Separation of Nader from Simin (as is alluded to with the subtitle captions at the very start of the movie), although both that and the simpler, abridged, international title – A Separation – are arguably a tiny bit misleading with regards to the tale which this film has to tell. It’s far more than just a candid look at divorce in the foreign lands of Iran; indeed it’s far more than just a snapshot of Iranian life as a whole, taking in the class struggle therein; and even more than a commentary on the West’s perception of life in Iran – posing huge and significant questions about an individual’s morality; about truth, right and wrong, and the vast grey area where the three overlap.
Although it talks about the separation of Nader from Simin, the story focuses mostly on Nader, the husband torn between his family duties and his family. It’s an impossible situation for anybody to be in, but you really feel for his struggle, as he diligently cleans his poorly father and argues with his wife about the future of their daughter. The girl herself is caught in the middle of it, praying that by stubbornly refusing to go herself it may somehow compel her mother to stay, and thus her parents to stay together. Tragically she learns about life in Iran the hard way through her unfortunate involvement in her dad’s crisis – and it’s a tough way for an already old-beyond-her-years girl to grow up fast.
Indeed you constantly question what you would do if you were in the shoes of any of the characters, and soon realise that, whatever decision you choose, it’s an impossible situation for all of them – made considerably worse by the fact that the country’s rules and customs are distinctly rigid and oftentimes vehemently unforgiving.
If you think I’m skirting around the issues without going into too much detail then that’s because I am. A Separation has no action; no visual thrills; no CG to keep your attention – instead it has a plot that grips you through its flawless construction, playing out like an unholy blend of Hitchcock and Kafka with its twisty-turny strands that draw you in through feeding you piecemeal bits of depth into these characters and their plight, letting you absorb and process it, and then giving you the next shocking element to hook you in. So it wouldn’t be right of me to spoil the story, suffice to say that it’s a great narrative that holds back just enough to allow even you, as a viewer, to decide for yourself whether you think the main characters are right or wrong, guilty or not guilty – and then, eventually, find out if you were right.
There’s also a beautiful complexity to the multiple parallel layers that the film works upon, as it at once explores issues within Iran that are soon shown to be globally relevant issues; class struggle within a repressed country that becomes symbolic of class struggle everywhere; and universal questions of morality which go way beyond the simple words spoken and relatively small-scale case at hand.
The performances throughout the film are all excellent, with Peyman Moaadi leading the piece as the torn father put in a series of impossible situations. Leila Hatami is the bigger name on the cast list, and nearly steals the show due to her striking beauty and innate elegance, retaining a dignity and presence throughout the piece that further lends weight to the argument that she is one of those modern classic actresses. However her screentime as the mother leaves her as merely one of the supporting characters, rather than a lead alongside Moaadi. Sareh Bayat is also fantastic as Razieh, the hired helper who also faces her own moral dilemmas. At times difficult to sympathise with, it’s a testament to the power of her performance that her character rings true throughout, especially during the tragic denouement. Shahab Hosseini brings solid support as her volatile husband, who, similarly, manages to bring a surprising amount of sympathy to an ostensibly unsympathetic role. Finally it’s worth mentioning the young Sarina Farhadi (who also happens to be the director’s daughter) as the daughter caught up in the middle of all this chaos; the real victim of the piece who finally has her eyes opened wide as to the state that her country is in, and the harsh reality of life.
They all lend weight and credibility to the characters, allowed more than enough time by the director (in some minds, no doubt, too long) to develop the parts so that you care for the plight and are, yourself, torn by the consequences of the possible outcomes. Indeed the director, Asghar Farhadi (who also wrote the piece), may take up 2 hours of your life with a tale which – on paper – is remarkably simple, but when you actually start to see the multiple layers at work, and the one big grey area within which the narrative, characters and morality itself resides, you soon learn to appreciate the sheer genius at work here. There’s never a wasted scene; every moment contributing to the unique whole. You can certainly see why it not only won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but also received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, a distinct rarity amidst foreign films.
With less than half a dozen features to his name, Farhadi has done extremely well to fashion such a masterpiece, especially when you consider that he has not been afforded the kind of budget, named cast, and general luxuries that more mainstream productions take for granted. Compared to other worthy Oscar fare like The Tree of Life and The Descendants, Farhadi really was up against the odds, with no financial support from the Iranian Government and, worse still, a temporary ban on production by the Iranian Ministry of Culture. It’s a shame because these are the kinds of films that only promote a better understanding of such an alien world, by shining a spotlight on the issues inherent to the culture and society, whilst also reminding us that it’s not so different from our own. The moral ambiguity and social commentary is both universal and specific to Iran.
So make some time for a fantastic little Iranian movie which defies any possible genre restriction and incorporates myriad themes including family and relationship drama, legal thriller, psychological drama, social study and cultural examination; exploring – at once – justice, religion, politics and parenthood; a structurally intriguing multi-layered tale driven by superb performances and genuinely captivating characters who you can truly relate to. Far from clear-cut in its conclusions – as is always the case in real life – its poignant observations on morality and responsibility will likely leave it, in the fullness of a time, an enduring classic. Highly recommended.