A Separation: Little Lies

LIES MAY LEAD TO TRUTH.

Dictatorships traditionally know that filmmakers can be very valuable and very dangerous to them. Just ask China about their relationship with Zhang Yimou. In the case of Iran, there’s the example of Jafar Panahi who was thrown in prison for supporting the opposition movement. In 2010, it was reported that another filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi, was banned from making movies (in the middle of the production of A Separation) simply for having expressed hope that Panahi would be released.

In the end, Farhadi apologized and the ban was lifted. A Separation was eventually celebrated all over the world and even won an Oscar, which brought a lot of attention to the Iranian film scene.

The story begins with Nader and Simin (Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami), a middle class couple in Tehran, requesting a divorce. She wants to move abroad and create a better life for her 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), but Nader has his Alzheimer’s-stricken father to look after and refuses to move. The civil court refuses to grant them a divorce since the couple’s problems are deemed insufficient. Simin moves out of their home and leaves her daughter with Nader for now. He needs to find someone to care for his father while he’s at work and Termeh in school and hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) who has applied for the job without telling her husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini).

Bad luck and his hot temper have landed Hojjat and Razieh in financial troubles. The job in Nader’s household turns out to be challenging for Razieh, and when she one day needs to go see a doctor, she makes an unfortunate decision that will have sad consequences…

A unique opportunity
Farhadi previously made About Elly (2009), which also portrayed the Iranian middle class. In A Separation, however, it’s more of a struggle between the well-to-do couple and the less fortunate working-class people. On one side we have accusations of theft and abuse, on the other we have a miscarriage that could have been caused by a rough push. Both sides have a reason to be angry when they decide to ask the civil court to settle their disagreements, but the case is complicated by little lies (again on both sides), Hojjat’s inability to keep his temper in check, as well as the fact that neither couple is exactly showing a united front.

Farhadi’s film is completely unpredictable and realistic, making us wonder where the story will take us. The tone may be low-key, but there is plenty of tension in the arguments between the couples – and between husband and wife. All of it filmed with a handheld camera that stays firmly fixated on the lead characters. Above all, this is a unique opportunity to see what everyday life is like for Iranians. It certainly matters which class one belongs to; Hojjat and Razieh have more to lose in their battle with Nader. But Farhadi also makes it clear that women are always subordinate to men, traditionally and legally, in this society. There is every reason to sympathize with Simin’s quest to leave Iran.

At the same time, never does the film become a freak show for Western audiences; everyone’s behavior is understandable, logical and true to the humanism that runs through it. Much like Persepolis (2007), this is a chance for greater understanding between Iran and the West. Turns out that in many respects there isn’t much of a difference from that in the West; families struggle with the same problems. Very good performances all around, including the director’s daughter who plays Nader and Simin’s 11-year-old; Hosseini is the stand-out as the increasingly desperate and volatile Hojjat.

A Separation 2011-Iran. 123 min. Color. Produced, written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. Cast: Leila Hatami (Simin), Peyman Moadi (Nader), Shahab Hosseini (Hojjat), Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi.

Trivia: Original title: Jodaeiye Nader az Simin.

Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film. Golden Globe: Best Foreign Language Film. Berlin: Golden Bear, Best Actor (Moadi, Hosseini, Shahbazi, Babak Karimi), Actress (Hatami, Bayat).

Last word: “The story of the old man, the father of Nader, that character was greatly inspired by my own grandfather who suffered from Alzheimer’s. I was very close to my grandfather throughout my childhood and adolescence. In the screenplay, originally, I used the name of my grandfather. Another storyline that is from a personal history is the relationship of Nader and his daughter. I myself have a daughter, and similar to what happens in the film, oftentimes I’m trying to teach her something, using any opportunity, about life.” (Farhadi, A.V. Club)

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