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Year: 2011
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Screenplay: Asghar Farhadi
Cinematography: Mahmoud Kalari
Cast: Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Kimia Hosseini
Runtime: 123 min
Trailer: on YouTube

Seen at a screening as part of the Iranian Film Festival (UKIFF) at Ciné Lumière.

A Separation was the first Iranian film to win the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival (plus Silver Berlin Bears for Best Actor – Peyman Moaadi and Shahab Hosseini – as well as Best Actress – for both Leila Hatami and Sareh Bayat). It also won awards at the Sydney Film Festival, the Melbourne International Film Festival, the San Sebastián International Film Festival, the British Independent Film Awards, among others. (For a complete list see here.) It currently has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The starting point of A Separation is deceptively simple: Simin (Leila Hatami) has filed for divorce from her husband of 14 years, Náder (Peyman Moaadi) because he refuses to leave behind his Alzheimer-suffering father for a move to America. Caught in the middle of this separation is their eleven-year old daughter Termeh (wonderfully played by Farhadi’s own daughter Sarina Farhadi), who is both intelligent and sensitive beyond her years. Knowing her mother will not emigrate without her, Termeh, hoping for her parents’ reconciliation, opts to stay with her father while Simin temporarily leaves the family home for her own mother’s house. With Simin gone, Náder is forced to look for a caretaker for his father and hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who takes on the job without the knowledge of her hotheaded husband Houjat (Shahab Hosseini).

The two families are from different social backgrounds. Simin and Náder are educated and modern (in a small, but poignant scene early in the film, Náder insists that, against what seems to be customary, his daughter fill up the car at the petrol station and makes her argue for the change when the attendant initially pockets it), while Razieh’s life is ruled by her husband’s debts and the Quran. When Náder’s father unexpectedly wets himself, she reacts by phoning up an imam to inquire whether it would be sinful to change the senile man’s clothing.

After a tragic event occurs, the two families find themselves fighting each other in court offices. The lines between them are firmly drawn, yet every single character in A Separation is profoundly human: Simin, Náder, Razieh, even Houjat, are all essentially good people but also flawed and victims of unfortunate circumstances. They do wrong, but their actions are understandable and raise difficult questions about truth(s) versus lies and family loyalty versus human integrity. Even the usual symbols of purity – the children – lose their innocence in this film. This applies for Termeh, who, at the cusp of adulthood is very likely to be swayed into the betrayals of adult life, but equally for Razieh and Houjat’s four-year old daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) who has already learnt that she must protect what she deems sacred.

The various strands of the story become twisted, and, with every frame of the film, are pulled more tightly until they result in a knot that is impossible to disentangle. Although plot details differ, we are reminded, in an echo of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play Der Besuch der alten Dame (The Visit), that what may seem like a small lie at one point, will become a permanent stain in the future. Once we have uttered certain words, committed acts of deception, reversal is impossible except perhaps by the most radical, self-exposing means – i.e. cutting through the knot with scissors. Does this happen? Do the characters of A Separation have such self-sacrificial courage? Should they even have it, i.e. is one person’s pain really worth more than another’s? You will have to watch Farhadi’s film and draw your own conclusions, but let me say that it is even more challenging to do this here than with Dürrenmatt’s play.

 

Farhadi’s primary tool in the film is dialogue, which comes in a constant and intense barrage: like word bullets shot at each other, Náder and Simin engage in an emotional battle of wills with each other, as well as with the lower-class family. Even in translation, no word seems misplaced as A Separation‘s illustrates excellent scriptwriting. Although there are a few (though rare) moments of silence, only two scenes are set to music, one of which is the closing act of A Separation. Simin and Náder have returned to family court to finalise matters related to their divorce, primarily to decide who Termeh will live with permanently. The camera lingers on them uncomfortably while the unexpected musical accompaniment draws attention, highlighting that these two individuals, who always had another argument to raise, have turned silent. They await the decision, nothing left to say for them: in their strong, clear beliefs on how to raise their child righteously, they hold no more power themselves as they have handed the choice over to Termeh entirely.

Rating: 10/10 An absolute must-watch.