Loosely centered on one couple’s messy divorce, Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” deftly weaves together class, religious and gender issues to create a narratively simple yet morally complex story set in contemporary Tehran.
After 14 years of marriage, Simin (Leila Hatami) files for divorce from husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) so that she and her 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) can leave the country in search of a better future. Nader, however, insists upon staying in order to take care of his aging father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and lives with the family in their upper-middle class urban high-rise. But when the judge deems the couple’s problems insufficient to warrant divorce, an angry Simin decides to move out.
Following his estranged wife’s advice, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a young pregnant woman and poor devout Muslim, to care for his father during the day. Despite Razieh’s best intentions, she soon finds herself overwhelmed by the work. Tension between Nader and Razieh reaches a boiling point when he returns home to find her gone and his father unconscious on the floor with one arm tied to a bedpost. A heated argument ensues when Razieh returns, resulting in Nader angrily shoving her and Razieh falling on the stairs in the midst of a hasty exit.
When Razieh ends up in the hospital shortly thereafter to be treated for a miscarriage, Nader becomes embroiled in even greater legal troubles. Razieh and her hot-headed husband accuse Nader of causing the miscarriage, an act punishable by several years in prison, while Nader maintains his innocence and suggests that Razieh neglected his father. Simin attempts to negotiate a settlement, but by now the he-said-she-said situation has begun to spiral out of control.
Like a metaphor for the tacit social rules that govern the characters’ lives, the film’s set consists almost exclusively of interiors. From Nader’s spacious apartment to the cramped court hearing room, “A Separation” is a heavily dialogue-driven vehicle, with the camera tightly framing the actors’ faces, allowing us to feel every look and gaze. This strong sense of intimacy, coupled with its quiet realism, makes the film wrenching, but at times frustrating.
Farhadi ensures that his characters are multi-faceted, such that by the time all the evidence surrounding the miscarriage is revealed, not one person seems completely innocent. Each one has a set of scruples, whether resulting from social class or religious views, that makes for a highly ethically nuanced story. A less generous interpretation, however, would suggest that none of the characters are particularly sympathetic.
At slightly over two hours, “A Separation” is a film that truly feels its length, dragging sometimes but usually managing to keep the viewer engaged through its highly charged verbal exchanges. And while the conclusion leaves much unanswered, the journey that precedes it offers a rare, uncensored look at Iranian culture while putting a fresh spin on traditional narrative themes of justice, honor and pride.