Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a middle-class, modern, urban Iranian couple. They have been married for fourteen years, but they’re separating. They were going to divorce, but the court ruled that their situation wasn’t dire enough to warrant it. They each have their side of the story. Simin desires to leave their country, as she does not want her eleven-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), growing up under current conditions. Nader, on the other hand, wants to stay so that he can look after his elderly father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), now in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Their situation becomes much more complicated after an incident, one directly involving the caregiver Nader hired to watch his father during the day. What begins as a simple argument between two people quickly escalates into arduous legal action and a heated battle over what really happened.
A Separation is surely the best film of the year. Apart from being a portrait of characters that are just as fascinating as they are compelling, it’s an intelligent and uncompromising examination of culture; within the course of what appears to be a simple narrative, we will have been told a thing or two about gender roles, parenting styles, personal values, the rule of law, and religious beliefs as they apply to present-day Iran. Although not a courtroom drama in the Hollywood sense, it has the superb plotting of a tightly-wound legal thriller, the characters in a desperate struggle to reconstruct a singular event out of several accounts. It is, above all, a timely and universally resonant story of responsibility and truth, the latter of which proves to be open for debate.
I want to word the rest of my review as carefully as possible, as the incident in question is dependent on actions that shouldn’t be spoiled. Based on Simin’s recommendation, Nader hires a lower-class young woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to be his father’s caregiver. Deeply religious, Razieh went against her own traditions by applying for the job without the approval of her husband. She resorted to this only because her family is desperately in need of money. There are three reasons why she proves herself the wrong person for the job, although I will only reveal two of them. First, getting to Nader’s apartment requires a grueling commute on several busses. Second, she’s forced to bring along her daughter, who’s clearly too young to be in an environment of a man with Alzheimer’s. It’s not just a question of exposure to something potentially traumatic; in her innocence, she doesn’t see the harm of fiddling with the pressure knob of his oxygen tank.
My careful wording will now devolve into maddening vagueness. Someone makes a very bad decision, leaving someone else’s life at stake. Not long after, something goes missing. The person it belongs to immediately accuses someone else of stealing, and indeed, this someone else does have a motive. This leads to a verbal altercation, which then leads to ... the incident I’ve alluded to several times now. At this point, an already challenging film transcends itself by drawing us into a twisted moral quandary. Several pivotal characters are introduced as the incident turns legal. We meet Razieh’s husband, Houjat (Shahab Hosseini), who has been unemployed for several months now and cannot speak without resorting to anger. We also meet an upstairs neighbor, who may have witnessed something important, and Termeh’s teacher, who testifies on behalf of Nader.
Caught in the middle is Termeh, who not only must endure her father’s legal troubles but must also watch as both her parents continue to fight. We’re repeatedly compelled to ask ourselves which of them truly has her best interests at heart, although that would be senseless simply because it’s never as clear cut as we would like it to be. This is the kind of film in which we can identify with both sides of an issue; each character makes valid points, just as each character makes weak arguments. The more we learn about the situation, the murkier it becomes. That’s because there’s far more on the table than a series of actions.
What it really comes down to are the beliefs with which we shape our lives. For Razieh, it’s a matter of her faith, to which she is bound. Consider the fact that she’s forbidden from touching a man other than her husband; when she discovers that Nader’s father is incontinent and has peed in his pants, she must make a phone call to determine whether or not she can change him. For the secular Nader and Simin, it’s a matter of personal pride. One will propose a financial settlement while the other will refuse to take part in it, as it will come off as an admission of guilt. They both think they know best, not just for their daughter but also for the situation at hand. By the end of A Separation, more than one person will be faced with making a difficult decision, one that will depend entirely on their understanding of what they perceive. And isn’t that was truth is? Perception?