When push comes to shove
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation won a Golden Globe as the Best Foreign Language Film of 2011, and it looks to have the inside track on winning the Oscar in the same category at this Sunday’s ceremony. It’s a movie that seems to keep changing the subject—but we find that the subject isn’t quite what we thought it was at first.
Farhadi begins in the Iranian equivalent of a divorce court, setting his camera—and by extension, his audience—in the position of the judge, as a married couple present their separate cases. The wife, Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave the country to make a better life for their 11-year-old daughter, and she wants to go before her visa expires. But her husband Nader (Peyman Maadi) doesn’t want to leave his aging Alzheimer’s disease-stricken father. (“He doesn’t even know you,” she scoffs. “That doesn’t matter,” he fires back, “I know him.”)
Simin is reluctantly suing for divorce so she can leave with their daughter, but Nader won’t give his permission for the girl to go, so the family is at an impasse. Simin moves in with her parents until things can be resolved; in the meantime the daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s real-life daughter), will stay with Nader.
So it seems at first that Farhadi’s subject will be the stress on the family caused by this separation. But that’s not the real core of the film, it’s merely the impetus for what follows. Simin’s absence forces Nader to hire a woman to care for his father while he’s at work, and he hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a relative of an acquaintance whom he doesn’t really know. As we eventually learn, she is looking for income because her family is nearly desperate; her unemployed husband has already been in and out of prison for debt.
Razieh’s devout faith makes caring for the father too much for her; when his incontinence causes him to soil himself, she calls an imam to ask if it would be a sin for her to change him. She proposes that Nader hire her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) for the job, but before Hodjat and Nader can agree on terms, Hodjat is detained again and Razieh must return to care for the old man. That’s when things start to go wrong.
When Nader comes home early, he find Razieh gone. His father is tied to his bed, soiled, unconscious, barely breathing. And some money is apparently missing from Nader’s bedroom. When Razieh shows up, Nader loses his temper with her, accuses her of abusing his father and stealing the money. Seething, he coldly orders her out of the house; when she protests that she is not a thief, he boils over and pushes her out the door.
The next day, Razieh is in the hospital, having suffered a miscarriage. Nader and Simin (who, despite their separation, rallies to his side) go to the hospital to see her, where they are confronted by the hotheaded Hodjat (it soon becomes clear why he has trouble holding a job). The two men come to blows, and Hodjat files a murder charge against Nader; under Islamic law, because Razieh was 19 weeks pregnant, her unborn child qualifies as a victim of homicide—if it can be proven that Nader knew she was pregnant when he pushed her out his door.
The separation of the movie’s title turns out to be more than simply the marital one between Nader and Simin. It’s also a separation of class between the working class, unemployed Hodjat and the middle class, comparatively well-off Nader; between the relatively liberal Muslims Nader and Simin and the strictly devout Hodjat and Razieh (for them, swearing on the Quran is the ultimate test of absolute truthfulness, and the movie ultimately hinges on when certain characters can and cannot do it); between Termeh and her father on one hand, Termeh and her mother on the other; between the diligent impartiality of the judge hearing Nader and Hodjat’s dispute and their own urgent emotional concerns.
I don’t know what Farhadi’s original title means in Farsi, but the English A Separation is a bit misleading. There are many separations going on here, and Farhadi explores them all with subtlety and a sense of profound decency. His movie is about life in Iran, but he presents it in terms anyone can understand.