Kingdoms will fall and seas will boil before a significant portion of the American movie-going audience goes to see a subtitled Iranian film like Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-nominated A Separation. But shame on critics and film journalists who make it even harder by suggesting that the film is “about Iranian society,” as though its devastating story could only be an anthropological curiosity to us Westerners.
Here’s the thing about truly great storytelling, in any medium: It works first and foremost because it’s human. Tolstoy isn’t just about Russia, or Ibsen just about Norway, any more than Shakespeare is just about England. In A Separation, Farhadi may be writing within Iranian society, but he’s not just writing about Iranian society. Through this one narrative, he manages to tackle sprawling notions of power, class, morality and deception in a way that makes a half-dozen characters resonate as some of the most complex dramatic creations you’ll see on any screen, in any language.
The titular separation takes place in the film’s opening scene, as Nader Lavasani (Peyman Moadi) and his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), appear before a judge to hear her request for a divorce. No great wrong has been done to Simin, she’s quick to acknowledge; “He is a good, decent person,” Simin says to the judge. But Simin wants to emigrate with their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter), while Nader refuses to leave behind his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. And when they can come to no resolution, Simin moves out, forcing Nader to hire a caretaker—a devoutly religious, pregnant wife and mother named Razieh (Sareh Bayat)—to watch his father during Nader’s work hours.
It’s a simple setup, but the dynamics that evolve from that scenario are far from simple. Razieh keeps her employment secret from her unemployed husband, Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini), because of the potential social stigma of working in the home of a single man, or possibly shaming Hojjat for his own inability to provide for his family. Legal disputes erupt into threats of violence, while multiple parties withhold crucial pieces of information to serve their own purposes. When Nader disagrees with a translation Termeh’s teacher has provided her for an assignment in Persian, he tells his daughter, “What’s wrong is wrong, no matter who says what”—but A Separation soon becomes a clear challenge to that notion.
Farhadi addresses that subject primarily through the ways A Separation deals with who has power in any given situation, and who doesn’t. We see a justice system that seems to treat those in the upper classes—Nader is a banker—differently than it treats a laborer like Hojjat. Nader and Razieh both tell lies they are convinced are necessary, but Razieh’s religious scruples have those lies weighing more heavily upon her. And the notion of powerlessness erupts with most heartbreaking effect as we watch both Termeh and Somayeh, Razieh’s 4-year-old daughter, become pawns in the tumultuous interactions between their respective parents. It’s one of Farhadi’s most subtly shattering moments when, during a climactic confrontation between the two families, we watch the two girls recognize their common fate through a simple minute of eye contact.
Yet for as many ideas as Farhadi weaves throughout A Separation, there’s never a moment when it feels remotely didactic, or when the characters feel like placeholders for a thesis rather than wonderfully flawed human beings. Moadi’s performance is particularly remarkable, capturing a stubborn man who casually manipulates his daughter—placing on her the responsibility for whether he should make a confession that could land him in jail—even as he convinces himself that his questionable actions are all about devotion to his family. Farhadi treats every one of his characters with the same fundamental absence of judgment, observing how lack of respect manifests itself in myriad ways, both individually and institutionally.
A Separation ends with a scene that seems not to provide closure, waiting for an apparently crucial decision that never comes. But in a suspended moment of tension and lack of resolution, Farhadi conveys so much about someone facing a no-win choice while holding on to a rare moment of power. There’s nothing particularly Iranian about that moment. It’s simply the culmination of the kind of human story that transcends culture—and subtitles.
Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat