A Separation | reviews, news & interviews
A thrilling new domestic drama from Iran
Asghar Farhadi’s new film unostentatiously suggests that Iran has many of the same things we have: cars, cash machines, schools, sex, divorce, Alzheimer’s. It doesn’t, we gather, have modern law. Before howls of protest erupt over so banal and Western-slanted a generalisation, I stress that this is the film’s contention: the madness of law the film proposes is not necessarily fact.
Yet A Separation does seem to be realistic. The society depicted, allowing one man’s accusation of another of murder to be mediated by a harassed pen-pusher in a building resembling a job centre on a hopelessly overcrowded Monday morning, is not one in which the phrase “process of law” (as we understand it) has likely purchase. The film’s “office” scenes reinforce a sense that in some parts of the world quotidian human affairs just insist on remaining, in the public sphere, primitively organised.
Farhadi’s 2011 Berlin prizewinner is not precisely about law, Sharia or any other. But the legal rituals and fevered bureaucracy, the Islamic predicate of one person’s word against another’s – no lawyers – the arbitrary calling of witnesses and imposing of blood money as bail, all compellingly represented here, frame the drama. Simin has decided to leave Iran with her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) and daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), but Nader’s concern for his old, Alzheimer’s-stricken father means he must stay. Simin has sued for divorce.
Divorce is refused, so Simin leaves the family flat (pictured right, Leila Hatami). Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) as his father’s carer for when he’s at work and Termeh at school. Razieh has religious scruples over keeping him clean. One afternoon she goes out on a chore, leaving him locked in and tied by the wrist to his bed. Nader returns. Enraged and ejecting the hapless Razieh from the flat, he causes her – or does he? – to slip badly on the stairs.
She miscarries and all hell breaks loose. Her fiery-tempered husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) claims Nader has killed his child. An extraordinary va-et-vient ensues between police station (is that what it is?), Nader’s flat – where Simin re-enters the fray, hoping to persuade Termeh to come and live with her, and Nader to pay the “bail” – and Razieh’s home, where her husband’s creditors wait like vultures.
Scene by increasingly pressurised scene Farhadi keeps us guessing. Did Nader know or not know Razieh was pregnant when he pushed her? Did she fall because of the push and could the fall really have caused the miscarriage? Is Hodjat beating her? In a complicated twist over Termeh’s tutor’s confirming Nader’s version of events, then retracting, will Termeh lie to prevent her father’s possible incarceration?
Starting slowly, A Separation never misses a beat. Half an hour in, it becomes as involved as any contemporary family thriller – from, well, anywhere (its 126 minutes feel like a taut 90). One unforgettable image, of Razieh surging down a car-clogged street with her chador billowing around her, momentarily reminded me of a vampire movie – but of course this is residential Tehran.
A Separation is about Iran’s stubborn domestic codifications, its men’s pride and prejudices, its women’s intelligence and enforced self-concealment (headscarf given, Simin wears jeans), and the treacherous ethical veering between them. Along with the Golden Bear at Berlin, it was showered with Silvers for its actors (each is instinctively natural, so reachable and recognisable) (pictured above, Sareh Bayat and Sarina Farhadi in Berlin) and is a revelation: of a system of mores so challenging to ours yet which feeds tangibly into matters of the heart, morality and education.
Without these, civilised life, anywhere, is impossible. That’s what A Separation forces us to see. It also has the best non-conclusive ending, around Termeh – if heartbreakingly sombre (appropriately, for a sombre topic and a sombre city) – since Richard Linklater’s 2004 Before Sunset.
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