Who are you to judge? Another’s life, the beliefs and attachments, rational and otherwise, that make up another’s choices—how can anyone evaluate such things? Yet the arguing Iranian couple in A Separation demand judgment. They face the camera in the opening scene, a comely woman with dyed-red hair under her veil, and her bearded, exasperated husband. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) are presenting their case for divorce to an unseen magistrate and in turn, to us. She seeks a better life for their daughter abroad; he refuses to leave behind his home and his elderly father, who is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. The judge denies them a divorce, declaring, “My finding is that your problem is a small problem.” They are stuck with each other and with us.
These are the seemingly low stakes of Asghar Farhadi’s latest, which has the unlikely distinction of being an Iranian film with Oscar buzz. (Iran hasn’t had a nomination since Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven was up for best foreign-language film in 1998.) Bolstered by the power of its performances and an impeccably modulated script, A Separation is a grim, beautiful thing, as many Iranian films are. The film is also a dense piece of formalism, like a Farsi-language version of Michael Haneke’s great Caché, with a similar focus on hypocrisy and social and generational tensions. A Separation lacks the usual enjoyable yet tricky tropes popular with Iranian art-house darlings like Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf—there are no film-within-a-film shenanigans, documentary/verité slippage, not a stitch of meta or irony or meta-irony to be found. There’s none of the room those techniques afford to step outside of this film’s world, one where even offhand remarks lead to drastic consequences, lies, and moral compromises. The film is a domestic drama crossed with a legal procedural, all of it so tightly wound that it seems staged inside a tinderbox. The hall of justice is a dirty room; its judge, an irritable guy sipping tea, and that, too, is part of the cruelty of the system—that such mundaneness could shoot down each attempt to do the right thing and render each action a gamble in which the house always wins.
Unhappy stuff. And with relations between Iran and the West worsening every day, it’d be tempting to search the country’s film for sociological insight or signs of political cant. A Separation offers a degree of the first in its depiction of the deeply religious couple who become enmeshed with the secular, cosmopolitan Simin and Nader, who hires the devout Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for his father. Our carrot-and-stick foreign policy toward Iran—support of the country’s young protesters; sanctions and threats against the mullahs—has little consideration for people like this chador-garbed woman and her volatile husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), an unemployed shoemaker hounded by creditors. They place a higher premium on faith and honor than on any notion of inherent rights but chafe under economic desperation just the same—and what is a black-and-white policy to do with that?
Thankfully, A Separation presents all those nuances and separations between class, gender, religion, and age—but manages to avoid both the Iranians Are People, Too schematics and political polemics. Farhadi’s film uses its prowling intelligence to insist always on the mess. There’s the mess of that in the medias res opening, the mess Razieh wants to avoid when she calls a religious hotline to see if she can change her charge’s soiled trousers, and the unavoidable, existential mess of living intertwined with people with whom you may violently disagree.
That last is typical for an Iranian film, most of which should be titled There Will Be Shouting. Why talk when you can start off with frayed politesse, slowly add more and more frantic hand gestures, and then crescendo into a full-blown howl of nagging, stonewalling, attacks on God, and standing over and screaming down directly onto the pate of your arbiter? The system, as with most unfair things, forces its subjects to prove who is more tireless or has more money in their pockets. After they run afoul of each other, Razieh and Hodjat resort to the former; Simin and Nader, to the latter. Yet even within the couples, there are schisms. Farhadi is impatient with the institutionalized sexism that the women must endure as their men fight battles over empiricism and honor. The women are trapped in a cramped faith and magical thinking about money. The ones with the cleanest hands are the children of each of the couples—two girls with the knowing gazes of those with a surfeit of intelligence and a lack of societal power. They trade a look near the end, right before the adults implode, that says, “Is this for real?” It is, sadly, and Farhadi’s harshest indictment of all is that this coming-of-age story should be such a disillusioning one.
A Separation ends a beat too soon for those who like plot resolution. Near the end of the film, Simin is bargaining with Razieh and asks her adversary, “What do we have to do with all this?” Farhadi’s insistent answer would be: everything. The adults wait, exhausted, on opposite sides of doorways for a decision that will bring no resolution and a justice that will never come. The film makes its point devastatingly clear: Despite our estrangement, there is no escape from each other—and realizing that is the only way out.