Simin (Leila Hatami) wants her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) to leave Iran with her. Nader wants to remain to look after his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) who has Alzheimer’s disease. The pair cannot find a compromise so Simin has requested a divorce that Nader is refusing to give. A Separation opens with a continuous shot of Simin and Nader in a family court in Tehran. The camera is fixed in position to look at the pair so that the audience take the role of the unseen judge hearing their case. In contrast to the fixed and formal opening shot, the rest of the film has a constantly moving camera to suggest a sense of turmoil in the lives of the characters. The camera frequently films through doorways or around corners to also give the viewer a sense of voyeuristic access into their private lives. However, throughout A Separation writer/director/producer Asghar Farhadi continues to place the audience in the judge’s chair; challenging them to make judgements about the characters and to acknowledge how nothing is clear cut or easy to evaluate.
Initially A Separation appears to be about the breakdown of the marriage between Simin and Nader, but the film explores other types of separations when it introduces Razieh (Sareh Bayat) and her husband Houjat (Shahab Hosseini). Razieh is hired by Nader to care for his father while he is at work and a resulting incident becomes a pivotal point that leads to another court case where the actions, motivations and morality of the various characters are challenged and questioned. Even the audience have to double think what they witnessed during the key scene and which characters’ interpretation of events best matches their own. The resulting conflicts explore the bigger separations in the film between the middleclass and presumably non-devote Simin and Nader, and the ‘regular class’ and religious Rzieh and Houjat.
A Separation introduces the themes of social divisions during the opening credit sequence where shots of passports being photocopied suggest the bureaucratisation of identity where people are reduced to a series of statistics. This opening obviously also deceptively suggests Simin’s imminent travel, which is then denied in the first scene and not pursued again for the rest of the film. Instead this sequence suggests how notions of age, gender, occupation and religion separate people. Like Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011) A Separation explores how presumed social norms are extremely tenuous and how threats to these almost illusory ideas can threaten our sense of personal security.
Perhaps this is why A Separation has resonated so strongly throughout the world. It has received extraordinary acclaim since it’s first February 2011 screenings (its Australian theatrical release has arrived extremely late) and seems to have attracted a much broader audience than most other Iranian films. The actors are professional, the film is tightly scripted, the setting is urban, the characters are recognisable white and blue collar workers, and the film incorporates elements of domestic drama, courtroom drama and even suspense/mystery film. A Separation stylistically, thematically and narratively appeals to western sensibilities, and yet none of these elements detract from the film nor dilute its identity as an Iranian film; in fact they do the opposite.
Through its tense and intriguing narrative, not only are class and religious divisions explored but it also provides a critique of the inequality between men and women in Iranian society. Partly to avoid political censorship and partly to make an accessible yet complex film, Farhadi doesn’t provide a direct condemnation of the way women are restricted, but the entire film expresses the limited options faced by Iranian women. Simin never gives a clear reason for why she wants to leave Iran with her daughter, but it become clear that as an intelligent and aspirational woman, her opportunities at home seem small. The male characters in the film are not bad people – they are highly flawed like all the characters in the film, but they are not bad. Houjat is hot tempered, but his physical aggression towards Nadar is understandable (if not excusable) and his real outbursts are saved for himself. During a scene at a petrol station Nadar appears to even be pushing his daughter Termeh into acting more assertively, even if that defies social conventions. And yet, these men still have control over the women in their lives. They may not consciously wield such power but social values and the law gives it to them.
Tellingly there are points in the film where the separations between all the characters appear to be removed. Razieh and Houjat’s daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) and Termeh exchange glances across a room to communicate their shared distress and confusion at what is happening between their parents. This suggests how children are often the ones who suffer the most in family conflict, which becomes the final message the film leaves the audience with. Graphic matches of both Simin and Razieh putting on their hijab headscarfs link the women during a moment when they are attempting to find a solution, only for it to be undone by the men soon after. In this way, issues of honour, religious obedience and family are continually defined by the male characters in the film to the detriment of their loved ones. As a result, social norms that are supposed to bring people together are slyly critiqued as part of a deeply ingrained patriarchal culture that divides and separates not just women and children, but men too.