A Separation will win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film this year. It’s not so much that it’s up against weak competition, but that, alongside Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Skin I Live In, and Melancholia (all snubbed), it’s one of the best foreign films of the year. Actually, it’s one of the best films of the year, period.
With the recent, unfortunate imprisonment of Jafar Pahani, one of the premiere Iranian directors, whose masterpiece Crimson Gold ranks up there as one of my favorite all-time films, it’s a relief to see fresh voices emerging. Director Asghar Farhadi, whose 2009 film About Elly will probably be released on DVD soon with the success of A Separation, makes here a film that is at once a cultural dissection and captivating mystery. Not unlike the aforementioned Turkish film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, A Separation uses genre conventions to investigate its characters and current Iranian climate. Where Anatolia framed itself as a police procedural, A Separation takes its genre elements from the courtroom films.
Beginning ostensibly like an Iranian Kramer vs. Kramer, the film opens with Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) talking to a judge (talking to camera, that is), about their reasons for wanting to divorce. She wants to move abroad. He refuses to go. The question of their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) comes up. Because Termeh won’t leave Iran, Simin instead moves out, forcing Nader to hire a maid – Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to come in to clean and look after his Alzheimer’s suffering father. When he and Termeh return home one day and find his father unconscious and tied to the bed, he immediately blames Razieh. They argue, he pushes her, and she falls down the stairs. The next day he finds out that she has had a miscarriage. Razieh and her hot-tempered husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) take Nader to court.
Farhadi’s script is clever and well-paced. As the film transitions from its opening marital strife theme into something closer to Witness for the Prosecution, he’s smart to make almost all of his characters, with the exception of Hodjat, initially likable. Even Nader, who from the opening scene comes off as “typically” masculine and heavy-handed, is almost immediately shown to be sympathetic through his loving interaction with his daughter. It’s the reversal of various sympathies, pulling us alternately in favor of and then against nearly all of the characters not named Termeh, that makes A Separation so fascinating.
As various clues and motives are unearthed the film begins to look a lot more complex than its beginning “I want a divorce so I can move from Iran because it’s no place to raise a child” argument would suggest. Religious fervor, morality, and gender and socio-economic roles come to the forefront as well. Nader doesn’t preach religion nearly as much as Hodjat and Razieh, for whom swearing on the Quran is a rather large deal. The three court scenes – Simin vs. Nader for divorce; Hodjat and Razieh vs. Nader for the murder of their unborn child; Simin vs. Nader vs. Termeh for child custody – all carry with them a range of implications, from courtroom misogyny to economic discrimination.
Farhadi shoots the film all handheld and with little fanfare. His technique is to emphasize off-screen space and action as much as on-screen: appropriate because much of the plot revolves around what may or may not have been heard. There’s certainly an emphasis on locations and – not unlike some of Kiarostami’s earlier work – there are a lot of shots in cars (perhaps to display said locations, perhaps in an effort to tie Nader to the car and therefore to a certain class).
Some of the more cinematic moments – a black flowing robe as Razieh runs down the stairs, for example – are de-emphasized by Farhadi’s fairly neutral camera. Though some scenes run for a long while (by Hollywood standards) he frequently cuts out before the climactic action has the chance to occur on-screen, keeping much to recollection and subjective testimony.
Below are a few stills from the film.
Apologies for the warped aspect ratios, but these do still manage to convey a few of Farhadi’s predominant aesthetic principles.
The first image – the first shot of the film – is emblematic of the type of natural light and fairly wide framing that Farhadi favors. There are very few close-ups in the film. Comparing the first image above (first shot of the film) with the second (last shot of the film), shows a nice transition. Nader and Simin have gotten literally further apart (that’s her, frame-left, through the glass door).
Where they essentially occupy equal space in the frame to being, the balance of power has shifted by the end, though it’s not as clear cut as one being “better” than the other. He is in the foreground and more visible by virtue of being unobscured, but she stands and is taller in the frame. There’s a lot of empty space between them, perhaps not only testament to their having grown apart, but also the absence of their daughter.
The final image above, where we see Nader frame-left and Termeh frame-right furthers this idea of literal separation. Farhadi uses this strategy throughout – shooting through doors and windows, keeping people apart though they are in the same environment. Perhaps this is intentional: a feeling of aloofness, of a culture that, though proud, renders many people adrift and alone.